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I usually don’t bring up ratings in film reviews, but parents should know that this is a PG-13 animated film, and that’s a wonderful thing, but unless you want to give your little ones nightmares, don’t let them see this until they are older. Director Shane Acker originally created this post-apocalyptic sci-fi story as a student short, which was later nominated for an Oscar. Working with screenwriter Pamela Pettler, they have expanded this into one of the most alive, adult, emotional, and bad ass animated films I’ve seen out of America in well… decades.
In a world where all the humans have died off, scrap yard constructed machines roam the Earth. A scientist (Alan Oppenheimer, TV’s TRANSFORMERS) has created nine living burlap dolls, perfecting the design with each one. #9 (Elijah Wood, LORD OF THE RINGS) has just come alive and meets #2 (Martin Landau, ED WOOD), who is out in the world searching for something lost. He’s a resourceful little guy. But they’re being hunted by a vicious skull-headed machine that imprisons #2.
#9 then meets up with #1 (Christopher Plummer, UP), the de-facto leader of the scientist’s creations. With the help of his muscle #8 (Fred Tatasciore, TV’s BEN 10), #1 keeps the others in hiding with the fear of death. #5 (John C. Reilly, CHICAGO) is an innocent follower, who idolizes #2, who he believes would really like #9. #6 (Crispin Glover, BACK TO THE FUTURE) is a bit squirrelly, scribbling away at the same drawing over and over again.
But #9 can’t leave #2 to the machines. So with #5, he heads out into the dangerous world on a rescue (or suicide) mission. On their journey, they discover that #7 (Jennifer Connelly, HULK) is not dead, and has become a formidable warrior. She is also the guardian for the silent twins #3 and #4, who have a creative streak.
First and foremost, this film has the bravery to go beyond what is expected. Trained by so many films that slavishly follow formulas, the viewer might think they know exactly how this film will play out, but you will most likely be wrong. One of the reasons this film will scare small children is that it is honest with the consequences of its harsh world. When characters die, there is no magic to save them. This element drives the emotional tension, because when mistakes are made, we feel them strongly.
The voice cast is perfect. Wood creates #9 as an inquisitive and kind hero. Landau easily fills #2 with wisdom that still has the creativity of youth. Plummer makes #1 the opposite. His wisdom is tainted by fear, chiefly the fear of losing power. Reilly performs #5 with insecurity, but one who can rise to the occasion when under strong leadership. Connelly’s #7 is a street smart fighter who doesn’t have time for mourning. Glover gives #6 his signature tweak. He’s someone who just needs to be listened to.
The actors each play their part in creating the rich characterizations, but one cannot forget the brilliant animation and design work. The burlap characters from their stitching to their clothes to eyes all play poetically into showing us personality without words. Acker also takes the time to weave in ingenious character moments. Take note to how a routine set-up scene with #8 is transformed into a wonderful character moment, as well as the funniest. As for the villains, the Seamstress with its use of devious bait is a brilliant creation. The skilled animation team brings out emotion in performances that ranks up with the work of Pixar. Moreover, the action sequences are intense and often frightening. But they create these emotions not because the action is frenetic, but because it is rooted in character.
With CORALINE, UP, and PONYO and now 9, 2009 is easily the best year ever for animated features. And the word on FANTASTIC MR. FOX is very good as well. If there were ever a year for five nominees for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, this would be the year for sure. 9 isn’t simply one of the best animated films of the year, it’s one of the best films. People shouldn’t be debating whether one animated film can squeeze into the 10 Best Picture nominees, how about two or three? Don’t let the animation fool you, this film is the sci-fi actioner you’ve been waiting all year for. 9 reveals TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN for exactly what it is — a big #2. All apologize to 9’s #2.