9 Dir. Shane Acker

[Focus Features; 2009]

9 wastes no time cutting into its wafer-thin but energetic plot. We sit ringside for the creation of a robot called 9. At this point, it's nothing but a burlap sack, stitching, and a zipper, until an unnamed scientist carefully crafts these rudimentary components into a modern Pinocchio, bringing him to life, not with the magic of Jiminy Cricket, but with the dark spells of science. 9 becomes sentient in a world awash in rubble and wind, without a sign of life to be found. Unable to speak yet full of adventure, 9 is quickly discovered by 2, a near lookalike in material and gumption. Voiced by silver screen legend Martin Landau, 2 is a doll of wits and genius, turning leftover trinkets into tools and weapons. As 2 helps 9 find his voice (Elijah Wood), the pair are attacked by a cat-like machine, eager to pounce on the twosome before running away with 2’s limp body and a talisman 9 collected upon his awakening. 9 is left to perish but is saved by others "of his kind." The brood goes on a reluctant journey to save 2, recover the talisman, and finish off the demonic machines.

While the premise is a familiar one—two of cinema’s largest modern franchises were built on the machine vs. man trope—9 doesn’t let up on its accelerator. The story is lightning quick, never pausing for much of a back story beyond explanations of how man was wiped clean by the soulless machinery originally created for a better quality of life. The world in which 9 exists seems to hint at a Nazi-like dictator racing to control the world through science, only for his funded creations to turn against and eventually eradicate man. But oddly, none of the leftover rubble points to any alien or futuristic technology, as even The B.R.A.I.N. — the machines’ almighty mechanical manufacturer — fashions weapons from needles, thread, tin cans, and any loose scrap iron it can find and weld. This temporal displacement lends 9 a timeless quality, guaranteeing the film’s integrity for future generations who may finally learn from its mistakes.

Therein lays the rub. For all its grandiose CGI animation and non-stop thrill ride from one conundrum to the next, 9's story is cliché. There are plot holes aplenty, but director Shane Acker is quick to shoe them away with quick action takes and nine ragdolls who have no sense of history beyond the books and films 3 and 4 catalogue from the ruins of a library. Like the burlap creations, Acker’s story is a patchwork of little information, just enough to fill in the large gaps between the action and the preaching.

It’s the voice acting that ultimately lifts 9 out of its bottomless pit. Christopher Plummer lends his hefty pipes and decades of wisdom to 1, the self-proclaimed leader of the nine living dolls. He works from fear rather than ideology, choosing life in hiding rather than bringing the fight to what’s left of the machines. John C. Reilly’s jovial tone provides the friendly and noble 5 a reliability needed for the audience to sympathize with the clan. Elijah Wood’s ever-youthful, upbeat voice breaths determination and optimism into 9, backing his foolhardy actions with needed cheerleading.

The cast and exquisite animation is enough to keep 9 interesting, but it's all at the cost of a rich back story that would have made the film more fulfilling and its payoff more heartfelt. Pixar has proven that crisp animation can carry intricate stories in a reasonable runtime, but 9 is all action, failing to give its relatable tale the stage it deserves.

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