'9' is an animated film worth your time

Posted: Thursday, October 15, 2009

A nimated films just don't have the built-in appeal any longer, do they? Not like they used to. It used to be practically a holiday when the yearly Disney film came out. It was an event! "The Lion King," "The Little Mermaid," shoot, I have vague recollections of "Bambi" changing my life when it was released. Nowadays, though, animated films are about as rare as rom-coms (romantic comedies for those unfamiliar with that term I claim to have coined).

For every Sandra Bullock release, and there are at least 15 more this year alone in that department, there is an animated feature as well. I say they're no longer automatic events, but "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" is getting ready to pass the $100 million mark at the box office already. So... maybe I'm just not a fun-loving kid anymore?

That is too depressing to dwell on, though, so instead let's talk about an animated film that is actually unique among all the cookie-cutter animated movies coming out every other week: "9." Shane Acker wrote and directed a short film by the same title back in 2005; it was good. Oscar good. That 11-minute film was stretched into the "9" in theaters now - 79 minutes. "Stretched" is the key word there, too, I suspect. In general, when a feature film is less than 90 minutes, it's a red flag. Under 80 minutes? Make it a scarlet red flag. Still, a 79 minute movie that's visually interesting has way more merit for my money than a 120 minute film that drags.

Acker's story centers on a group of rag-dolls that are living in a post-apocalyptic world. That part of the premise is hardly new. We humans create super machines that are supposed to help us and make life easier, but the machines get smart. And then evil. To quote Elaine Benes, "yada yada yada." The machines we create take over the world and quite literally wipe humanity out. The twist Acker throws at us is this: What if the same scientist who created all that evil machinery found a way to transport pieces of his soul into rag-dolls? What if he found a way to preserve life, even if it was no longer human?

The rag-dolls are up against some tough competition, namely the machines still roaming around. Odds are against the dolls, since they are, after all, dolls. The machines are powerful, self-sustaining, smart, and murderous. Good luck, rag-dolls!

Where Acker's movie suffers is where it lets down its incredibly original and sleek animation by borrowing too blatantly from stuff we've already seen. At times I could swear Peter Jackson had stepped in and was shooting animated versions of his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (he even brought Elijah Wood with him!). The flashbacks to the war between humanity and the robots, on the other hand, feature giant tripod machines that appear to have come directly from the animated set of "Meet the Robinsons."

When he's not too busy borrowing from others, Acker's film is really quite remarkable. Acker's characters are one of a kind (or 9 of a kind, I suppose). The world of "9" is dark, even somewhat depressing. There are even moments of good, spooky tension when the diminutive dolls are being stalked (which they pretty much always are) by the sadistic machines.

Animation is no longer automatically noteworthy, but Acker has avoided the norm here. There aren't any meatballs and Sandra Bullock is down the hall. Those are just two of the reasons "9" is worth 79 minutes of your time.

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