wed 24/04/2024

9 | reviews, news & interviews

9

9

Mankind didn't make it; hanging with the homunculi in a post-apocalyptic world.

Another year, another animated film which plonks us down into the ruins of civilisation. After WALL-E , it's the turn of 9, but this time the causes of the apocalypse are not ecological; it's the fault of big bad machines which, like the ones in The Terminator and The Matrix franchises, have turned against us and reduced our cities to rubble.

The flesh-and-blood folk are all dead - there are a few glimpses of corpses which are discreet if slightly unnerving. The idea that mankind didn't make it casts an interesting pall over proceedings, but flashbacks show a scientist-cum-inventor trying to preserve the spirit if not the physical substance of humanity by injecting parts of his soul into nine homunculi cobbled together from knick-knacks and scraps of cloth, much as Voldemort decanted his essence into horcruxes in the Harry Potter books. This is all a bit voodoo, if you ask me, but the minikins in 9, unlike, say, the ones in Tod Browning's The Devil-Doll, are benign. They're all that remains of mankind - our avatars, if you like.

The names of producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (director of Night Watch and Wanted) are flaunted on the posters as a come-on, but this is Shane Acker's baby all the way. His debut feature started out as a wordless Oscar-nominated 11-minute short (you can see it here) in which a hessian manikin with a zipped torso fights a fearsome mechanical monster amid dusty urban ruins. The animation is quite beautiful, and so densely textured you can almost feel the nubble of the wee guy's fabric.

Acker's expanded version takes the same plot and visual style, introduces mini-golems one to eight, adds a starry voice-cast (Elijah Wood - doomed to be forever typecast as one of the little people - along with Christopher Plummer, John C Reilly and Jennifer Connelly) and provides back-story by way of pastiche World War Two newsreels in which machines rampage like War of the Worlds tripods. The minikins, like The Borrowers, find ingenious new uses for found objects, and battle a series of brilliantly designed steampunk monsters. If Toy Story's doll's head on spider-legs gave you nightmares, you ain't seen nothing yet; there's a horrible robot snake, a mechanical pterodactyl and the monster-in-chief has a big red Cyclops eye, like HAL.

But despite the care that has evidently been lavished on the animated visuals, the running-away-from-the-monsters plot feels repetitive and undernourished, like a short film padded out to 79 minutes. The monsters, in fact, have more personality than the munchkins, each of whom could be reduced to a single sobriquet, like the Seven Dwarves: Nosy, Nicey, Bossy, Feisty, Nutty, Thuggy, Doddery, Brainy and Brainy (those last two are identical twins). But it's the characters - not the design - which make films like Toy Story so special. And it's the lack of character development which stops 9 from joining its animated brethren in the big leagues.

Truly we must be living in a Golden Age of Animation when a film as striking and imaginative as 9 comes across as a bit same-old, a bit bof. But Acker's full-length debut has the misfortune to open in the same year as Monsters vs Aliens, Coraline, Up and Ponyo on the Cliff. (This last one, Hayao Miyazaki's latest, doesn't open in the UK till 2010, but has already been seen everywhere else in the Western world - way to combat piracy, British distributors!) The bar, as they say, has been raised.

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