Thursday, July 21, 2011

9 (2009)

Imagination On Celluloid

- Hollywood heavyweight producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov back the sci-fi/fantasy fairytale vision from newcomer Shane Acker seen in the incredibly underrated 2009 animated film 9. The animation genre has become known to the average American moviegoer as a children's genre; a type of film that should be bright, fun, maybe watched in 3-D, and one that can be enjoyed all-around by the entire family. Rarely does a dark and thrilling animated film hit US screens but 9 hit them with a vengeance.

The world that is seen in 9 is unlike anything previously seen before: a dangerous machine-run world void of humans but with humanity living on in nine unique stitchpunks. Now 9 is not the first film - or even the first animated film - to feature a post-apocalyptic world but 9 does post-apocalyptic a bit differently than anything else has in the past. Director, writer, and animator of 9, Shane Acker, succeeds with his first feature film in the same way that he succeeded with his 2005 Oscar-nominated short film of the same name: by creating a visually brilliant world filled with charming characters and a mystery that can only be answered in the mind of each individual viewer.

The film begins with the ragdoll "stitchpunk" 9 waking up in a dark, dusty room. He does not know where he is nor does he know much of anything - he is alive for the first time. 9 has to learn as he goes along, and he quickly learns that he is living in a dangerous world after he meets another stitchpunk ragdoll, 2, and a vicious cat-looking machine who attacks and kidnaps 2. The learning experience continues as 9 meets up with the other stitchpunks (#s 1-8) and butts heads with the leader, 1, who wants to run and hide from the terrors of the world rather than stand up, fight, and rescue their missing comrades. 9's learning experience is broadened after a fateful experiment with trial and error as 9, along with 5, goes to rescue 2 but unlocks a terrible evil in the process. Now all of the stitchpunks must work together to survive in and unravel the mystery of this world, as hiding is no longer an option.

The runtime might be short (clocking in around 1 hour and 20 minutes) and the plot might be on a small scale but the style, characters, atmosphere, emotion, excitement, and imagination of Shane Acker's 9 are big and bold. Acker chose to put other things as his priority over telling a specifically "epic" or "intricate" story, 9 is a film that has a small story but big visuals and feeling with characters as the center of everything.

A case of style being a great part of the substance, the animation seen in the film is unprecedented and is clearly some of the finest ever seen in film. But Acker also packs the film with action and wields suspense like a sword, adding a pulse to the interesting broken film world he has created. Like 9, we the viewer are thrown into the world that Shane Acker paints for us, a world that is visually brilliant and fascinating; dense with an unspoiled combination of darkness, beauty, and detail. Much of what can be seen is reminiscent of World War I era Europe but much is also ripped from steampunk lore (think Jules Verne), creating a futuristic looking past. The world that is seen in the film is recognizable to us and yet is also foreign; a mesmerizing world that is wounded, its life taken and its history snuffed out by pain and mystery.

A similar ambiguous style of storytelling used in Shane Acker's 2005 short film is what makes the story, setting, and atmosphere so effective in Acker's 2009 feature film. 9 allows the viewer to make his or her own mind up about the world in which the story is set as well as the characters themselves - the film is not up in one's face with a blatant message or theme like so many other modern films these days.

9's learning experience throughout the film drives the story, becomes a catalyst for the interactions between the characters, and is the lens in which the audience watches the film. 9 is an imperfect hero and his charm and journey are endearing, however each character in the film is likable in different ways and represents a facet of humanity. A big line up of very prestigious actors populate 9 (Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Martin Landau), giving voice and life to the characters. Sometimes voice actors, while not fully ruining their characters, overshadow their characters (like Eddie Murphy in Shrek (2001) or Tom Hanks in Toy Story (1995)). This never happens in 9, however; one completely forgets that stars are behind the voices while watching the film, the voices are simply the voices of the characters and that is nothing but a good thing for the film.

9 is, in my mind, an unquestionable animated masterpiece but taking into consideration the mixed reviews from fans and film critics, 9 will probably have to settle for a cult classic status. It does not matter much, however; 9 took me away into an amazing world with the magic of movies like no other film from 2009 and beyond - it is pure imagination on celluloid.

CBC Rating: 10/10

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