I blame Coheed and Cambria.
When Mrs. Speculator and I first saw the trailer for this new animated movie, we were swept away by the use of the alt-prog band's introduction to their song "Welcome Home" (listen for yourself at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycMNBgoWPZg). Here was something strange and wonderful, animated poppets running over a ruined landscape to the strains of one of the best musical introductions of the last decade. And then the trailer throws Tim Burton's name up as producer, and we were sold. How could this movie not just sweep up the world in its awesome embrace?
The trailers didn't lie—well, except for the lack of any music resembling Coheed and Cambria, but you do get music by Danny Elfman, which sort of makes up for it. And that difference between anthemic rock and neoclassical music encapsulates the critical difference between the trailer and the movie: it's missing the fun that was promised.
As the movie starts, your breath will be taken away by the animation, not Pixar good but feeling more indie-minded. Incredibly life-like hands work diligently to put together a poppet apparently made of burlap, every weave of which is visible and distinct. It's gorgeous and effective, drawing the viewer in easily. And then when the poppet, 9, appears to spring to life, you're ready to go on his adventure with him. And though the world he wanders, a post-apocalyptic nightmare, is disconcerting, like the animation itself it becomes part of the background, accepted as normal without much hesitation. This setting of the unfamiliar as commonplace forces the movie to have to do extraordinary things after those first images to help it to rise above average. In other animated movies (I could even argue for pretty much any movie with a fantastic setting), after the first few scenes the movie must have some other strength come to the fore and carry the excitement past the introduction of the different. In the Shrek movies for example, the movie relies on the witty banter of the nearly recognizable characters to maintain the energy. Most Pixar movies rely on interesting characters and exquisite storytelling technique to keep the viewers' attention. Unfortunately, 9 doesn't really do anything to stand out after those first few moments.
Immediately after 9 enters the world, he runs into another poppet, 2, who seems to recognize him and welcomes him to life. There is brief conversation and then they are attacked by a grotesque combination of cat and machine called the Beast. 9 escapes, in part because 2 assists him before being captured himself. Following 2's last instructions, 9 heads off to find other poppets and attempt to enlist their aid in rescuing 2. Just underneath the surface, the viewer questions what is going on—we understand the broad strokes of the movie thus far but the background and motivation are missing. How can burlap poppets move about independently and have free will? Where are all the people? What happened to cause this nightmare? The frisson of these important unanswered questions keeps the viewer a little on edge as the movie begins to plod along, following all the major clichés of action/adventure movies.
9 goes on to meet other poppets, all of which are stereotypes: 1 is the leader whose only concern is safety at all costs, even to the point of using force to keep others from potentially exposing them; 8 is the big stupid henchman who apparently doesn't think very much but is very good at following the leader's orders; and 5 is the injured reluctant fighter, cowed by his experiences, the arguments of the leader and the brutishness of the henchman that he does nothing but exactly as he is told. And of course our hero rebels against such conservative behavior since it would lead to giving up on any rescue of 2, and of course 5 goes with him, seduced by the possibility of becoming more than the shell of who he had been. And then the movie follows the classic movement of action movies: go to the villain's headquarters and make a mistake, return to your own headquarters and have the villain follow, and then return to the villain's headquarters with all your forces to defeat him at home.
Along the way we meet other poppets and we begin to learn some of the details of how the world we find ourselves in was created. But the more the movie explains what is going on, the less sense it makes, moving from a story heavily grounded in technology to one based on spirituality, using it as a crutch to obviate the explanation of events (it's magic!). The cause of the war that has destroyed everything is relatively plausible, if heavily indebted to the Matrix movies, but like those movies, the spiritual explanations are somewhat lacking. And then at the end when the spiritual nature moves explicitly to the forefront as the cause of the events in the movie, it becomes maudlin and pretty illogical, even within the parameters of the story the movie tells.
You'll notice that I don't mention the voice actors here, and for good reason. While the list looks impressive—Elijah Wood, Crispin Glover, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly—the performances really aren't special. They seem to work in just two modes, conversational and excited, with very little nuance. Nothing stands out about any of them, a direct cotrast to, for example, the utter world-weariness that Ed Asner provides in every word that Carl speaks in Up. Even Plummer's performance in Up is far better than his role as 1 in 9.
So we're left with an incredibly promising premise that somehow bogs itself down in the mundane, becoming minimally exciting and not very thought-provoking at all. Even the action scenes are not very strong, and the way the movie spirals into half-baked spiritualism as it draws closer to its conclusion only reinforce the sense of everything just not going to plan. The contrived ending, written explicitly to tug the heartstrings, is not deftly done, feeling more like hammerfalls of obviousness. And though there is a note of hope, it doesn't make a lot of sense once the viewer takes a step back and thinks about the repercussions of all that they have learned through the movie.
I suppose that some will see this as groundbreaking, and I certainly wanted it to be. But it reminds me of Wizards in that it had been built up in my mind by the promise of potential, and then I find the execution is just not there. Given the names behind the movie, I'm sure 9 could become something of a cult film, but it barely deserves that. Fortunately, the movie is pretty short and since I had some fun for a short period of time, I don't feel that it was wasted time. Fans of animation may want to see 9 but they should definitely try to avoid paying full price.