Director Shane Acker’s 9 gets full credit for its attention to detail and the voracity with which Acker constructs his CG-animated fantasy world. The boiled-down premise sounds dubious even for a genre movie — a group of sentient rag dolls fight giant robots in a postapocalyptic wasteland — but Acker’s assured tone and belief in his story make the film engaging. And yet, the film feels plodding even at 80 minutes. There are moments when the story begins to drift a bit, not from its desired outcome or eventual resolutions as much from its reason for being. It makes more sense when you realize that Acker’s feature (his first) is based on a short he released in 2005 and which was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award. The feature version of the story is longer but no more fleshed out, and too much of the development relies on random chases and a character’s arbitrary decision to run to a new place. And that lack of focus is a shame, because at its best, 9 is an entertaining and tightly made fantasy adventure, an animated steampunk fable for grownups that would be more worth seeking out if not for the way it runs out gas toward the end.
The film opens in a rundown room when 9 (Elijah Wood) — a burlap doll so named for the number painted on his back — drops to the floor from his perch and awakens for the first time. Although the film will eventually spell out what happened to ruin the world, Acker’s smart to get the show off with a proper bang by simply dropping the viewer in cold and letting their gradual understanding of the blasted-out planet develop parallel with 9’s. There’s something wrong with 9’s innards that prevents him from talking at first, and as such the film relies on strong visuals and tone to communicate the story for the opening sequence. 9 ventures outside to discover that the world has moved on, and that everything is brown and bombed and almost completely destroyed, and this is when Acker begins to make use of his master’s degree in architecture as well as an MFA in animation. The near-future world is elaborately built, and the only remaining things are machines and a few rag dolls that brim with a unique life and look. 9 finds another doll, 2 (Martin Landau), who repairs his voice and begins to help him find the rest of their small colony before a lumbering mechanical monstrosity known only as the Beast bursts into the dirty clearing and snatches 2 away in his jaws. This is the first of what will become too many plot points that revolve around 9 or one of the other dolls deciding to go rescue someone who’s been kidnapped or gone missing. At this point, 9 has no motivation and almost zero knowledge of the world, but after finding the hiding place of the other dolls, he’s determined to rescue 2 because, well, what else is there to do?
With little else guiding him, 9 recruits the help of 5 (John C. Reilly), who lost an eye in a battle long ago, to rescue 2, a brief journey that reunites them with 7 (Jennifer Connelly), who’s been living in the waste and fighting the machines because she can’t stand to live life hiding or under the leadership of the dictatorial 1 (Christopher Plummer). There’s an interesting idea hiding in here — namely, that even the last nine living beings on Earth can’t seem to get along — but Acker leaves that stone unturned in favor of having the characters run from A to B to C and back to A while dodging monsters and trying to hide. A fable like this one doesn’t have to be dense or intricately plotted, but it does need to have characters with basic desires that drive them to action, whether it’s the pursuit of a physical goal or the battle between warring viewpoints. The script from Acker and Pamela Pettler deals superficially with 1’s desire to maintain control versus 7’s position that the best defense is a decapitating offense, but mostly it’s just run, stop, run, stop, moralize, run, stop, repeat.
The voice cast is solid, though there’s not much they can do with lines like, “I started this. I’m the one who has to stop it.” But they invest enough emotion in their performances that the dolls take on recognizable personalities, which helps when the plot begins to sag. Additionally, the film is hindered by an unspoken desire to take everything very seriously, and any character’s stab at humor falls flat and feels sadly out of place. There’s an attempt to make 5 something of a comedic relief, but his “jokes” are too few and far between. This is the dimension that would have really grounded the characters and taken the film to the next level. But it’s just one of the things that got overlooked stretching a short into a feature.
As with the story, the animation oscillates between impressive and ungainly: There are moments when the dolls feel real, and others when it looks as though a burlap texture was quickly overlaid on a simple character template. It’s almost too polished, and breaks the spell that these special creations were given a spark of life. But Acker’s eye for design mostly makes up for this, especially with the villainous robots that anchor the action sequences, like the snake with the head of a broken baby doll that drags a cloth cocoon behind it to hold its captured prey and is all kinds of unsettling. One of the best things about the film is not its execution but the way that execution makes grand promises about where Acker might go from here, and there’s no doubt that he could do something amazing. This is the trial run for that.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.