Movie News & Reviews

'9' almost as brilliant as it should have been

Every day I spend at least three hours thanking the heavens televisionand internet cat videos have atrophied the imaginations of ageneration of our youth.

An imagination is a terrible thing. Unless you're talking aboutGuillermo Del Toro, "imaginative" is pretty much a synonym for"insufferable." It's usually used to describe movies that are eitherone long whimsical dream sequence (imagine me making an obscenecrotch-based hand gesture here--unless that makes you uncomfortable,in which case Q.E.D.) or tries to pass itself off as original byposing the following question: What if King Arthur were real andalso a Louisiana werewolf?

How much imagination does a work of sci-fi or fantasy really need? Getone good idea, make the sidekick a dwarf or a robot, and bam, you'vegot enough material for your series to fill a Gideon warehouse. As asci-fi movie, 9 may not be perfect, but you've got to respectthe way it feels so fantastically alive without ever drowning you incapricious nonsense.

War between man and machine has left the earth a silent ruin. Amechanical doll named 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) wakes in this worldconfused and alone. He soon meets 2, another creation like him, butwithin moments they're attacked by a monstrous automaton that hauls 2away to a distant foundry.

The injured 9 is found and restored by a small team of dolls that'sbeen hiding in the rubble and waiting for the last of the dangers todie off. Not content to wait, 9 spearheads a mission to rescue 2--andaccidentally awakens a monstrous robot of terrible power.

This is the kind of thing that could easily have gotten lost in itsown magical world of steam-powered fairies and talking screwdrivers,but director Shane Acker deftly avoids the temptation to wonder it up.His robots may be big-eyed assemblies of buttons and burlap, but theyaren't delightfully quaint toys, they're wind-up garbage. That'sbecause everything in his post-apocalyptic world is refuse andleftovers: if you're going to build something out of that, it's goingto end up a little bit cute and a little bit dumpy.

That's the kind of internal logic that keeps your disbelief suspended.The story works the same way, busting out a couple big made-uppremises and then grounding them in small and consistent details thatmake it feel real.

Oh right, and all those corpses and rubble lying around aren't sowhimsically charming, either. Like WALL-E, 9 isbeautiful in a dirty sort of way, but it's also bleak and grim withoutbeing explicit. Also: it looks totally sweet.

It's so well animated, scaled, and designed, in fact, it's easy not tonotice the dialogue doesn't do much but sit there. Complicatingmatters, 9 and the other dolls are meant to be archetypal characters,so if what they're saying sounds generic, even a little cliched, doesthat mean it's actually good writing? How does that work? Can youreally claim victory in being good at being bad? That's like braggingabout being a feloniously crummy driver, then triumphantly plowingyour F-150 through an elementary school crosswalk. Kudos on meetingyour goal, but I have to question whether it was worth setting in thefirst place.

It's not a big deal, it's just a place where the script could haveexcelled but didn't. The same thing could be said about itsappropriate yet vaguely unsatisfying ending. It's fine, yes, but nextto that gorgeous world, kinetic action, and clever direction, 9can't help but feel a little less than it should have been.

Grade: B