The film 9 is a rapid-paced animated feature from director Shane Acker, based on his short film of 2005, also titled 9, about survivalist rag dolls with numbers for names. And it uses the plot-device about desolated mankind, usually done-in by their own devices, which in today's CG obsessed world would be menacing (and giant) self-thinking machines. Although in 9's case they were a customary combination.
Focus Features, the producers and distributors of the movie, give the movie away like this “The time is the too-near future. Powered and enabled by the invention known as the Great Machine (a giant machine which can make other, cognizant machines), the world's machines have turned on mankind and sparked social unrest, decimating the human population”, but “a group of small creations was given the spark of life by a scientist in the final days of humanity”.
Think of The Matrix happening without humans and the reality-nullifying special effects of the artificial world (the giant mechanised creatures look very much like the ones in Matrix), and place the protagonist in a six-inch burlap body with lenses and shutters for eyes.
The film 9 opens with an eerie set of images, as old weathered hands finish a human-like rag doll made out of zippers on a gunny-sack. When the creature becomes self-aware (how and why are explained later, without an air of mystery), the voice-less creature, marked by the sensibility and movement of a human being and a large numerical of 9 on his back, walks a barren ruin of a city and meets another burlap creature, the number 2 — with the voice of Martin Landau — who installs a voice-kit into 9. It now talks in the tone of Elijah Wood, and then the film ventures from one action set-piece to another until the end credits.
After the feature-length version was over, I ventured back to the original short film to compare notes. No surprises because the 79-minute 9 is more-or-less an amplification. The fluidity of action, motion (and sometimes emotion) is sustained and on-occasion amplified on this $30 million venture (decently budgeted for its technicality). The original short, being a university project, did not need voice-acting. Its visual narrative, with meticulously timed movement and physicality was more than adequate for its 11 minutes. However, in the feature-length version, the screenplay by Pamela Pettler moves from action-to-action, diverging briefly to announce a beginner's concomitant back-story.
Despite the snag, Acker is a wunderkind find, and 9, pushed by producers Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow) and Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted), exhibits substance defining an era of Burton's earlier trademark creepiness. However, Burton's subdued use of emotion is undersupplied in Acker's first-time hands. I was not moved, for example, when characters voiced by Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, Crispin Glover, Martin Landau one-by-one fall prey to the Beast (a cat-like creature with sharp edges and glowing eyes), the pterodactyl-like bird that sweeps into the heroes hideout, or the Seamstress' snake-like creature with a broken doll's face, that captures and sews up the cast of dwindling characters.
Still, Acker's aesthetics for a first-timer are unadulterated. The paintings, architecture, trenches, automobiles, even the inclusion of a hand-cranked phonograph and the song Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz oozes an aura of 1940s totalitarian Europe. The animation might be mesmeric. But that's not much to go on now, is there.
On the other hand, we have Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a thoroughly commercial, family-friendly release from Sony Pictures Animation, flashing a vivid color palette, and a storyline that runs on fizz and sparkles. The premise, which might as well be out of the twilight zone if not for its sheer lacquer-coated radiance, has a scoreless inventor — Flint Lockwood (Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader) — who cooks up a machine that rains food on a town that subsists on sardines.
Cloudy's best aspect is its transparency in storytelling. At most the burden screenwriters/directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord face is to fashion a bubbly experience that rightly distributes its weight between the screen-story and identifiable token characters For example, James Caan voices the introvert father incapable of voicing his love for his son. Anna Faris is an intern-turned-weather girl who's really a nerd in disguise. Bruce Campbell's mayor is a villain, and Mr T voices a physically-hyperactive cop (who might also be the only cop in town).
Cloudy's technicality is both visible and invisible. Whether it's raining burgers and ice-cream or winding up a cyclone of twisting spaghetti, the film moves with the flair and simplicity of a gourmet meal made up of...well, burgers and coke, nothing too overbearing or too self-conscious, and for that alone it gets a place on my DVD collection.