Animated films in the U.S. are plagued with a simple issue for decades: a belief that animation is for children. In spite of a plethora of evidence, from the many mature anime to adult animation, which has become much more willing to be controversial with South Park and Family Guy. However in western animation, films and shows being somewhat creepy and dark has been an aesthetic that has been used quite often, from The Nightmare Before Christmas to Coraline. 9 takes this aesthetic and uses it to introduce us into a world that is explicitly not for kids. It didn’t stop some parents from letting their children watch it anyway, but that isn’t the film’s problem.
Based on a short film of the same name, the film expands on the short significantly. Upon release, 9 received mixed reviews, but would gain a cult following, fitting for something that got Tim Burton as a producer. The fan following for the film seems to be pretty strong, although small. But just how good is the film?
9 (Elijah Wood) is a ragdoll that awakens to a world that is dead and in ruin. Humanity is wiped out, along with all life that existed thanks to an army of machines using chemical weapons. All that is left aside from ruins and corpses are 9 and eight other ragdolls of mysterious origin. However the machines aren’t entirely gone yet either leaving the ragdolls to have to find answers before the leader of the machines, the B.R.A.I.N., gets them too.
The biggest strength of the film is its visual design. This post-apocalyptic landscape is unforgettable in its look and detail. A lot of thought has gone into the world from the bombed-out husks of buildings, to the machine factory, to even the empty WW1-styled battlefields. The designs of the ragdolls are excellent too, each being distinct and looking made of different materials. Our leads also further display the film’s attention to detail. For example, their hands go from 1’s simplistic and rough design to the more advanced hands of 9, being capable of more complete motion and made of sturdier materials.
Our villains also get some great designs, possessing both horrifying appearances and behaviors. Each machine looks like some patchwork monstrosity made of scraps. For example, the Cat Beast is made out of the skeleton of a cat, with mechanical parts and blades added on while the Winged Beast has a beak made out of blades and is made of a human torso. However, the Seamstress takes the prize for most frightening machine, being a snake-like creature with a broken doll head and multiple arms, who sews characters up to capture them. And all of the machines have at least one red eye, as if their nightmarish designs weren’t enough. Additionally, B.R.A.I.N, the leader/builder of the machines itself is a threatening villain, always putting the main cast on edge and pushing them to more desperate measures.
While its strength is in the designs and animation, its weakness is in its story and characters, both being rather simplistic. The plot, while well-paced, doesn't offer that much and lacks too much depth. A strength of the film is in how much story can be inferred or interpreted (aided by a good marketing ARG), but the events themselves are straightforward and lack the complexity that the world has. The characters follow this same pattern, with a lot of interesting details about them, from their behaviors, the items they use or wear and especially the truth of their existence but they themselves aren’t too complex. Despite their simplicity, the audience still cares about what happens to them and that is vital in this film. In particular, 9 is a smart and likable protagonist despite making the worst decision in the whole film. Much of the cast follows this as well, including 5 (John C. Reilly), 7 (Jennifer Connelly), 2 (Martin Landau), 6 (Crispin Glover), 3 and 4. Even the less likable 8 (Fred Tatasciore) gets his moments. The most stand out of the ragdolls is Christopher Plummer’s 1, who manages to be the most unlikeable of the characters while also being the most developed of the cast and having an arc that is told effectively.
9 is a unique film that while lacking a complex narrative and characters, makes up for it in its intricate and imaginative design, detail and implicit depth. The film is short, but well-paced and has events that the viewers care about. I would say that the film is an overall good film, but kept from being a great film due to its story and character issues. Despite this, I think the film is worth a look. We could honestly use more films like it because then, maybe, parents would actually check to see if an animated film is appropriate for their kids.