A strange little automaton made of cloth and metal (officially dubbed a “stitchpunk”) gains consciousness and finds himself standing on a desk, with nothing to identify him but a 9 scrawled on his back. He’s surrounded by papers and scientific work and peers over the edge of the desk to see a corpse laying on the floor. Confused by his situation and taking the first weak baby steps in the start of his life, he walks over to the window to look out upon a ruined city.
There are no more humans or life left in the world, everything is cold and gray and bombed to hell. But he notices another little stitchpunk running around in the world, and heads down to find out just who it is. He discovers that not only are there eight other stitchpunks out there, but giant metal beasts that seem intent on hunting them down for unknown reasons. He heads off to find the others.
As you probably know, this is the second film to be released this year that not only has a 9 in the title but was made by a first-time director based on the strength of his short film, and had big-time directors attached to it to help produce. Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov are certainly nothing to scoff at, and the fact that they helped create a feature-length animated film with such a dark slant to it sure sounded great to all of us.
Sadly, the movie completely fails to live up to our hopes.
Shane Acker’s short film 9 was nominated for an Oscar (watch it here) and with good reason. The animation is incredible, the character design inventive, the story compelling. The beginning of this film copies the short but then it completely falls apart. With the talent involved it’s almost insane the film ended up so boring and predictable. Here’s what happens- no spoilers!
First a giant robotic creature attacks the stitchpunks, who fight back with little weapons. They might appear to be winning for a bit but one of them ends up getting taken away at the end of the battle. Then 9 has a speech with the others where he pledges to get them back, as his listeners tell him that he’s crazy and that no one’s done that before. They go after their friend and get in a fight with a different big creepy robot monster… and another of their group gets taken away. And then 9 tells everyone that he’s going after him, and they say he’s crazy. Then they go to save them and get attacked by yet another robot, who takes away another. And then 9 wants to go after them again.
This is the ENTIRE FORMAT OF THE FILM. I tried to slap myself in the face when I realized I was still awake and listening to the fourth “He’s lost, just leave him!” speech from the elder of the group to 9.
It’s like someone took the short film and copied and pasted it over and over again to make it feature length, only adding a new (and admittedly incredibly designed) evil robot to stick in each section. There are no character arcs, you never learn anything about these characters and frankly don’t care about them at all. The beauty of a film like Toy Story is that you looked at these dolls as human beings, with feelings and passions and real souls. The dolls here are just dolls. Cute to look at, but that’s about it. Hell, you can learn everything you need to know about these one-note beings by just reading their descriptions. The fantastic actors are all horribly wasted, and more than one person after the screening commented on how much more powerful the film would have been if they had gone the silent route. Ironic, considering that Acker’s short does just that.
Plus, for a film that’s about the little stitchpunks trying to find their way in the world, they sure don’t question anything. Near the end 9 finally stumbles over a convenient plot device that explains his existence but it would have been a more powerful moment if he actually questioned it before. Sure, the audience wonders who created these little things but the stitchpunks never stop to question their purpose once. They just want to eternally chase after their friends.
The one place the film completely succeeds is visually. The stitchpunks are quite cute and very expressive, which makes their horrible personalities even more of a shame. The ruined world is terrifying, dark and sinister and never far from violence. This is a movie that will undoubtedly give children nightmares- the sharp, jagged world alone is disturbing, let alone the creepy metal monsters that thrive in it and menace our heroes.
But at the same time the world and themes are quite adult, the humor is incredibly childish. The character all behave like children regardless of how long they’ve been around, and the dialog seems ripped out of a Saturday morning cartoon (do they still make those?) There’s a scene where a stitchpunk gets stoned by placing a magnet over his head while he makes “Oooh!” sounds and his eyes haze over with static, for God’s sake. There are some quite thrilling adventure moments (no doubt helped by Bekmambetov’s involvement), but when you realize you’re watching the same thing repeated over and over again it loses its charm. It also ends on a flabbergasting note that attempts to show some hope for the future, something that wasn’t needed in the original short and cheapens the whole thing.
9 is the kind of film that’s worth watching once, but only with much diminished anticipation. This isn’t the next great animated film, this is a shallow kiddie flick disguised in dark wrappings.