Directed by Shane Acker; screenplay by Pamela Pettler, from a story by Shane Acker
Not to be confused with District 9 (the aliens in Johannesburg film from earlier this year) or Nine (the musical remake of 8 ½ due out later this year), this animated film offers the sock puppet saviors at the end of the world. It’s sort of like The Terminator mythos are interpreted by the Brothers Quay, set in a world where the machines have destroyed all life on Earth but for these nine animated rag dolls.
Not your average animated bedtime story, as you might have guessed from a film produced by Tim Burton (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and Timur Bekmambetov (Nightwatch). It’s weird and dark and full of cruel creations of metal and bone built only to hunt and kill. Our hero, 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood, Frodo himself, with an innocent courage), is a doll-sized blob of burlap and gears and zippers who awakens in a workshop in the ruins of civilization full of curiosity and questions (who am I? what has happened?). When he finds others like himself, he’s just met with more questions and the dogmatic proclamations of a self-appointed demagogue (Christopher Plummer) who preaches a gospel of fear and forbids the others to venture outside. He prefers ignorance to engagement with the dark technology (“Sometimes fear is the proper response”) and has his own guard dog of blindly loyal soldier enforce his commands. Others have already fled his tyrannical rule to make their own stand in the ruins. But when 9, moved by curiosity and instinct, inadvertently reawakens the dark technology, you have to wonder if that authoritarian elder was partly right.
The situation is resonant of ancient fables and mythos, with a small group of beings who must defy “rules” and risk their safety to evolve beyond their hideaway and understand the daunting world outside. But this pocket of safety is no Eden, merely a hideout, and outside is a literal hell on Earth unleashed by a mankind that opened the Pandora’s Box long ago. The nine are quasi magical creations, part mechanical construct and part spiritual alchemy, driven not by battery but pieces of one man’s soul, an anguished scientist who trying to leave some sort of life in the wake of the destruction he has inadvertently unleashed. They are both individuals and parts of a whole, each one an aspect of the last man (the warrior, the seeker, the keepers of knowledge, the sidekick, the coward, the hero), and their strength comes in their unity, which is no easy task in this fractured family.
Which makes it all sounds more interesting than it is. Director Shane Ackerman expands an award-winning short fable without developing the characters beyond simple types or adding more depth to a familiar heroes journey. The nightmarish vision and the fatal stakes of the situation is more resonant in what it evokes about the events that brought us here than the story itself does, which reduces the wonder and mystery and possibilities to storybook simplicity.
The delight is in the detail. The character designs are marvelous and the surface details playful and inventive—the candle and spoon spotlight of 2, the bird-skull helmet of warrior woman 7, the camera aperture eyes that open wide to let in all the light of every new sight—and the subtle details in the evolution from 1 to 9 suggest a scientist perfecting his doll-making skills and talent for scavenging raw material. The CGI animation brings a tactile texture to these characters scavenged from rough pieces and the animators give them a body language as distinctive as their designs. The richly detailed world created is a wonder to watch and the swift, soaring action can sweep you up in the imagery and energy. It’s far more fun and engaging than, say, the rock ’em sock ’em robots of Transformers 2 but for all the epic stakes, there’s not much to hold onto as you leave the theater.
The PG-13 rating is for violence and scary images and the feral looking junkyard predators are indeed nightmarish machines, but what really makes them scary is the spidery queen mother of them all, a mechanical demon with single laser-like red eye that can suck the life force from these plucky little guys. These burlap beings can and do die, which is alarming enough for an adult expecting a fantasy fable in sci-fi trappings, let alone a child. Be warned this is a fantasy for big kids.