9 is one of the most visually stunning movies I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from its depiction of a post-apocalyptic future without humans and only populated by the machines and little fabric dolls of man’s creation.
The movie is part of a long tradition of stories. The opening scenes of a craftsman assembling a creature with wooden hands and cloth body with a zipper down the front, allowing access to his inner organs, but, alas, failing to quite finish his work, should be familiar to anyone who has seen or read Pinocchio. The sense of man’s creations “living” on after his demise is reminiscent of A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
9 also brought back fond memories of WALL·E with its little robot futzing about collecting detritus from man’s past. One of the best scenes in 9 involves the playing of an old LP of Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow.” It feels very much like the scenes of WALL·E enjoying, but not quite fully comprehending, his found videotape of Hello, Dolly!
9 is directed by Shane Acker who was one of the New Zealand animators from WETA studios, creators of the knockout images in Lord of the Rings. But it is truly the vision of its two producers, Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov. Burton’s work is pretty well known and the characters in 9 bear a striking resemblance to ones in A Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride.
Bekmambetov though is a relatively new figure, best known for the cult favorites Nightwatch and Daywatch. I’ve only seen his work in bits and snatches, but the environmental, political, and historical backdrop for this tale is clearly torn from the fabric of his upbringing in the Soviet Union. Much of its visions of mighty, visionary leaders of the past and filthy, despairing smokestacks of the present seem to bemoan his nation’s collapse.
The constant threats to our diminutive heroes are enormous and spidery and terrifying machines, machines that appear to serve no purpose other than to terrorize talking, animated dolls – and the smaller children in a movie theater. Take the movie’s PG-13 rating seriously. One small boy in my row made three trips to the lobby. I’m guessing one for the bathroom, one for popcorn, and one for safe haven.
Their original purposes long forgotten, these machines are now – like the robots of A.I. – reminders that man shouldn’t play God. His creations may turn on him, bring about his demise, and run amok without him for ages to come, discovering their own, previously unfathomed, purposes for existence.
9 began life as a short film by Acker and has now been expanded to 79 minutes. Unfortunately, it does show a bit of strain along its seam lines. The short featured only the craftsman’s final doll, bearing the number “9” on its back. 9 now features his earlier dolls as well, bearing numbers one through eight. Not quite enough new stories were woven into these new dolls though. Too much of the movie consists of extended – albeit exciting and often scary – chase scenes.
Still, with Ponyo and now 9, we’ve had two pleasant animated surprises in less than a month, something most welcome when it seems that Pixar Studios are the only folks with something fresh to say in this exciting medium.