The release of Shane Acker’s “9,” an expansion of his compelling Academy Award-nominated short of the same name, adds another to 2009’s slate of intelligent, distinctive animated features. “Coraline,” “Up,” “9.99,” and “Ponyo” all represent antidotes to increasingly homogenized studio animation via a blend of unique, considered visual styles and depth of storytelling ability. “9”‘s no slouch in either of these regards. (If “Fantastic Mr. Fox” turns out well, this might be remembered as a watershed year.) An apocalyptic steampunk vision in which a ragged band of miniature sock puppet figures risk their lives to defeat the remnants of evil machinery left behind post-cataclysm while simultaneously questioning the miracle of their own existences, “9” feels a bit like “Terminator Salvation” reconceived by folks with imagination.
“9” opens with a brief prologue detailing the creation of its titular hero (all the characters use the numbers scrawled on their backs by their creator in places of names) featuring human hands stitching cloth into shape, dissolves of hastily scrawled plans on parchment, glimpses of dark burnished wood, dire prophetic voiceover — Acker establishes his world with a few elegant strokes (the sewing actually brought to mind the similar introduction to the world of “Coraline”). The character 9, voiced by Elijah Wood, wakes to find himself alone and unable to speak, incredulous at his own aliveness in the face of the destruction everywhere. After stumbling out of the house and into the destroyed world, he runs across the elderly 2 (Martin Landau) and the pair battle a particularly nasty beast (an ingenious combine of a metal skeleton topped by a wildcat skull) in a sequence updated from Acker’s short. After the conflict, economical, tense, and Spielbergian in construction, 2 is carried off in the jaws of the monster and 9 escapes, alone again.
He quickly (somewhat too quickly for where we are in the film) finds his way to a small band of similar creatures hiding out in an abandoned church: 1, 5, 6, and 8. After a brief education in the rules of the world, debate ensues (also too quickly): 9 argues with their leader, 1 (Christopher Plummer), that a rescue mission should be undertaken to save 2. The grizzled veteran, revealed in sepia flashback to have guided the survivors to safety through the end of the war, forbids the excursion. Then, 9 manages to convince the one-eyed 5 (John C. Reilly) of the rightness of the quest, and the two set off across the wasteland, adding the ninja-like warrior 7 (Jennifer Connelly) to their group along the way. Their unlikely rescue mission seems successful, but goes awry after 9 unwittingly awakens a particularly nasty piece of machinery, one we later learn is the source of the world’s destruction. The three escape, but the sentient machine enters high production mode, using the spare parts around him to construct a variety of sentries (falcons, spiders, snakes) to hunt down the living puppets.
Acker’s universe begins cloaked in mystery, gains further intrigue as more details are introduced, and resists completely spelling out all its intricacies. We never learn exactly how these creatures come to take on life (3 and 4, the group’s librarians, produce imagery that suggests the process is akin to some kind of alchemy), and we only get a broad sketch of how and why the world was destroyed. These elisions build faith in Acker’s storytelling abilities. It helps that his character design is such that each of his numbered heroes develops a unique personality, though all are built from similar-to-identical materials. If only the film were a hair longer — at 78 minutes, “9” remains slight, a little foreshortened, and its dramaturgy suffers as a result; it feels as if we’ve been gear-shifted into the second act after only about ten minutes of screen time, and the storytelling skimping is glaring, especially for a film willing to spend precious minutes luxuriating in the quirks of its world (the creation of a makeshift flashlight from used parts, the puppets getting stoned off a magnet hit, and a malicious snake machine appropriating one of the lifeless puppets for a cobra-style decoy).
“Up” ran 96 minutes, “Coraline” 100, and both films succeed not on the basis of their length but on the expository material those extended running times allowed. Even so, “9” is imaginative and creatively made, pummels forward through a number of terrific action set pieces at such a clip that you might not even miss the places in which a slightly longer movie might have paused to take a breath.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]