Shane Acker's animated feature about a bleak, post-apocalyptic world has much surface charm -- if that's the right word for such a grim scenario -- to recommend it. However, the film could use more plot and character development -- though perhaps such aspects of storytelling matter less when the ground is still smoking and there isn't a human being in sight.
Subbing for humanity in 9 are several creatures resembling steampunk ragdolls. In the film's prelude, we see one being stitched together by a scientist -- so we know the beings are inorganic, filled with wires and other metal doo-dads, and only a few inches tall. Lastly, the man paints a big number "9" on the back of the doll, and promptly expires.
Our story begins much later when Doll No. 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) awakens in the wrecked, dust-covered lab of his creator and stumbles out onto the street. There he meets a similarly constructed traveler, the scavenging one-eyed 5 (John C. Reilly). 5's delight at finding another number is short-lived, as the two come under attack from "the beast," a cat-like exoskeleton seemingly made from scissors.
After narrowly escaping the heavy-metal kitty, 5 takes 9 to meet the rest of the numbers: 1, the cranky old leader; 8, a beefy enforcer; and 6, a demented visionary who can't stop drawing weird symbols. (If you're keeping score: Also roaming about are 2, the twins 3 and 4, and 7, a ninja-like chick.)
The symbols 6 can't stop scribbling match a weird button that 9 has stashed in his zippered-up innards. Inspired, some of the more intrepid numbers head for the scary part of town, where inserting the button into a dormant factory machine proves to be a really, really bad idea.
That's pretty much the bulk of the film: The reanimated machine tries to kill the numbers and the numbers try to kill the machine. The machine has artificial intelligence in its arsenal, and the numbers have their collective strengths, and, I guess, the fact that they're sort of human.
It's just barely enough plot to sustain this relatively short film. At 79 minutes, this is the extended version of a nine-minute short Acker previously directed. (That film, also called "9," was nominated for Best Animated Short at the 2005 Academy Awards.) And the ending? I'm not sure I got it, dude: It seemed to be the payoff to a narrative we'd not been clued in on.
Nonetheless, I was entranced by the fantastic look and sound of this film. The future is a grim place -- everything is dark, dusty and rusty -- but the digital animation renders this gloom with a gorgeous sharpness. (Can murk sparkle?) The monsters are fantastically realized villains -- they construct themselves from available scrap -- though I wish they were less frenetic so we could appreciate their malevolent artistry. Likewise, the sound of these rampaging machines was a troubling symphony of the worst metal-on-metal noises (crossing blades, grinding gears, clanking).
I also admit to being distracted from the horror by how freakin' cute these numerical creatures were -- especially the hero 9. The huge lens-like eyes, the stitched-on eyebrows, the sad little mouth, the cuddly mesh-bag body, the oversized brass zipper running from chin to crotch that made the a sweet clinking sound when he moved -- if I had a type in post-apocalyptic beings, this would be it.
But the adorability of these number protagonists was just another odd directorial decision in a film that, while entertaining, struggled to find a focus. 9 is a dark-hued action flick -- inexplicably starring doe-eyed ragdolls -- that wants to say something meaningful about humanity and technology but can't quite get its notes together to be coherent. But hey, 9 -- call me.