Shane Acker's 9 (Focus Features) is a symptom of the trickledown of high-quality animation. A few years ago, 9's visual niftiness, its meticulous imagination of a past-turned-future dystopia, might have been enough to make the movie fresh and memorable. But in a moment that's given us Wall-E and Coraline and Ratatouille and Up, snazzy art direction just doesn't cut it anymore. In the post-Pixar era, the astonishingly detailed, lovingly crafted animated beings actually have to do something interesting in order to engage us.
Like Coraline, 9 opens on the image of a doll being put together by human hands. But rather than a button-eyed rag doll, this burlap-covered homunculus is a kind of miniature steampunk robot made entirely from materials that would have been available during the Industrial Revolution. His hands are made of carved, polished, and jointed wood (their craftsmanship is later admired by a fellow robot), and inside his zipped-up body is a mysterious mechanism that, when activated, gives him the ability to speak (in the sweet, tentative voice of Elijah Wood).
For reasons that aren't explained until late in the story, this creature (known only as "9," the number emblazoned on his back) is born into a world devoid of human life, a bombed-out post-apocalyptic landscape littered with WWI-era technology and human bones. A vast machine assembles the detritus into mindless mechanical beasts that roam the ruins in search of … whatever these little burlap guys are. There are a handful of them hiding among the ruins, concerned with little more than their own survival until 9 comes along and encourages them to take on the machine-beast army. Against the advice of their leader, 1 (magisterially voiced by Christopher Plummer), 9 and his compatriots—9's loyal buddy 5 (John C. Reilly) and the fearless female rebel 7 (Jennifer Connelly)—try to make their way through the rubble back to the place they were created, in an attempt to understand who made them and why.
Though the textures and volumes of this stitched-together gang are impressively rendered—they're digitally animated, but you'd swear they were stop-motion dolls—9 falls victim to a syndrome that's increasingly common in animated features: The major characters resemble one another so closely that it becomes exhausting to keep track of who's who. (This syndrome, formerly known as Thomas the Tank Engine Disorder, has recently been renamed Transformeritis.) But for their distinguishing ornaments—a button here, an eye-patch there—these bald, googly-eyed burlap figures are essentially identical, and the fact that their names are all single digits doesn't help. One fellow is made of striped mattress ticking rather than burlap, and when he appears you breathe a sigh of relief: I know that one—it's the mattress-ticking guy! As with Transformers, this physical resemblance might not be a problem if the characters were differentiated by sharp writing. But with the exception of 1, a conflicted king who counsels that "sometimes fear is the appropriate response," each of these burlap 'bots is endowed with precisely one trait: 9 is the curious one, 7 the bold one, 5 the good-natured sidekick.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about 9, given the originality of its rusted-out, monochromatic visual world, is how utterly unoriginal the action sequences seem. When it comes to escaping danger, these cunningly crafted doll-'bots might as well be miniature Steven Seagals. Everyone's forever running down tunnels chased by a fireball or dangling off fathomless industrial abysses (because here, as in all cinematic alternate futures, no one will build guardrails anymore). The action scenes (and there are many) quickly become rote, making even the movie's slim 80-minute running time feel long. Danny Elfman's swooping orchestral soundtrack only adds to the sense of by-the-numbers familiarity. Elfman's signature sound is so associated with Tim Burton movies that it overwhelms this film's chances of carving out an aesthetic space of its own.
9 is based on a 10-minute animated short film of the same title that Acker made on his own in his basement. When it was nominated for an Academy award, the director was discovered by a team of producers that includes Burton and Timur Bekmambetov ( Wanted). It's easy to see why Acker's gifts caught the attention of these directors; he's a visual craftsman of no little promise. Now if he can just stitch together a story with the same loving care that went into creating those digital burlap dolls …
Slate V: The critics on 9 and other new releases