Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Thoughts on "9"


My husband and I caught an evening showing of 9 (not to be confused with District 9, the upcoming Nine, or this) on Thursday. I've had a couple of days to think about it, but I'm still torn. I like what 9 represents, but I'm not sure I like the actual film quite as much.

I had already seen and liked the original short film by Shane Acker that 9 is based on. I like how the character design feels informed by stop-motion, from the small scale of the characters to the real world object and textures that they're made of. The short has a beginning, a middle, and an end and gets its ideas across without the aid of dialogue. It's a very solid and enjoyable student film.

What was - and in some ways, still is - exciting to me about the movie 9 is that it retains that same stop-motion inspired aesthetic. There are no other CG films that look like 9. Additionally, (and my husband really deserves the credit for bringing this up) 9 is a heavily promoted animated action-adventure film in wide release that is neither aimed at young kids and their families nor a serious meditation on the horrors of war that is totally inappropriate for children. While I've certainly loved films that fall into both of these categories, it seems like most animated films today fall at the most extreme ends of the spectrum. There's a huge area in the middle that theatrical animation, particularly in the US, has left largely unexplored. The idea that 9, which was number two at the box office on its opening weekend, could kick off a new interest in animated entertainment for adults and older teens is pretty exciting.

There were definitely things I enjoyed about 9. The interesting and unique design from the short is still there, the same little sackcloth heroes and bone-machine hybrid monsters. The story begins with the end of all human life - and possibly all organic life - on Earth, a subject you won't find in most animated films for the kiddie set. I particularly liked the twins 3 and 4, mute characters with fluttery moth-like movements and eyes that flicker like film projectors. They act as librarians, gathering information left behind by the extinct human species and the details of the world around them. They keep a picture catalog of the various subjects they've researched. Each image is attached to a string leading to the spot where the information on that subject is stored, sort of a "low-tech Wikipedia." (My husband came up with that term. I should probably give him a co-writer credit for this article.) It's fun to watch and and interesting take on how information might survive in a post-apocalyptic society.

Unfortunately, 9 also has a number of big problems in both story and, surprisingly, visuals. Quite a few critics have commented on how thin the movie's plot is, so I went in expecting that. But I was still disappointed with how weak the story ended up being. Much of the action falls into a cycle of "run, then fight," to the point where the battle scenes start to feel repetitive. Despite the plot not being terribly complex, there are still ideas and explanations that make no sense when given even a moment's thought. Some of the films key concepts feel woefully underexplained. The end result is a string of action sequences that frequently fail to stand out from one another held together by exposition that is never quite enough to answer all the questions the film raises.

What really surprised me was that the visuals were not as good as I had hoped they would be. The film's protagonists all have protruding metal eyes that resemble small lenses. Their pupils can dilate and contract, but that's about all the expression the the animators can get out of their eyes. They do have brows, but since their eyes are rigid metal, the brows just move around without changing the shape of the eyes, which leads to weak expressions. It's not impossible to design a character with mechanical parts and an expressive face. Look at the title character in The Iron Giant, whose whole body is designed to allow a wide range of poses and expressions while still being convincing as a robot made of metal.

The lack of strong facial expressions in the main characters might not have been and insurmountable problem. But the character's body language is equally weak. From the first few scenes, I was noticing poses that were not conveying the action and emotion as well as they could have if the poses had been stronger. Combined with the lack of strong facial expressions and celebrity voice performances that seldom rise above a satisfactory level, it made for characters I didn't feel invested in, which is why I spent my time noticing flaws like weak poses and statements that don't make sense instead of worrying about the characters and their plight.

In spite of all my problems with 9, I honestly hope it does well. I can't recommend it unconditionally. If you were completely blown away by the original short, you may well enjoy the movie. If you only liked the short or found it just "OK," then you can probably wait and rent it when it comes out on DVD. But the potential for 9's success to open the door for other - hopefully better - animated films for adults with big studio backing and a mission to entertain is still very exciting for me. So even if 9 was not a film I enjoyed all the way through, I still wish it well because of the possible future it represents for animation.

Image is copyright Focus Features.

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