How close is close enough? That was the question that kept coming to my mind after checking out Universal/Focus’ DVD release for their early fall film, 9. While the press kits offer plenty of connections to producer Tim Burton (less to co-producer Timur Bekmambetov) he isn’t specifically a material contributor to the movie, a fleshed-out feature based on director Shane Acker’s short film.
That said, Burton’s presence is all over the piece in spirit. The story involves a mish-mash world primarily evoking a steampunk version of Europe, 1939, but incorporating many other anachronistic elements, invariably creating a familiar and foreign world all at once. The invasion is over and no human life has survived. All that remained were the scavenger robot creatures, picking on the remnants of the dead, and a handful of ragdoll creatures, imbued with life and fighting to stay alive. Each ragdoll is a step forward in design and functionality. Now, ragdoll number 9 has arrived, the most sophisticated creature in terms of his design, and his destiny is to be the savior and redeemer of this new culture. The characters all mirror Burton’s nightmare-sketch design ethic, the world as presented finds affinity with his “decay as beauty” and goth inclinations, and even the non-specificity of the time period reminds the viewer of his cut-and-paste stylization on the first Batman flick, and yet it is not really Burton’s film. While Acker has incorporated all these elements, he’s shortchanged himself, never really giving the viewer something they could tag as a new director’s vision.
The other thing that kept popping out at me was how this film constantly reminded me of the Matrix sequels, although I enjoyed 9 much more than them (which says less about the attributes of 9 and more about the disappointment with The Matrix.) By the end of the movie, it’s safe to say I was on the fence — didn’t hate it, wasn’t in love with it. It just was what it was. In it’s defense, however, the film is a tiny step forward in terms of American animation accomplishment. It is dark, both in scenery and in storytelling, and this alternate universe is always creepy, even in relation to the protagonists. 2009 then becomes a year when our US studios came just a little closer to that which the rest of the world already knew, that “cartoons” can tell a whole range of stories, not just entertainments for young people. Focus Features started the year with the effective, truly creepy Coraline, Pixar didn’t shirk the responsible topic of mortality in Up, and 9 earns its PG-13 and gets points for having tried. I only wish I could have been more excited about it.
The “Spotlight Series” standard edition of the movie offers a decent smattering of special features, commentary and the inclusion of Shane Acker’s original short, also called 9. In recent years, the extras have become fuel for 2-disc (re: more expensive) special editions and, even then, the value of the added content can be frustratingly lukewarm. Give Universal/Focus credit for making sure this single disc edition has something beyond the movie itself. The image of the DVD itself is not too bad, relatively speaking. The blacks of the images aren’t super-crisp but get the job done, and there was slight corona around some of the brighter elements due to issues with extremes in contrast, but neither of these are so invasive that they would pull you out of the movie, and I’m sure the Blu-ray of this will be nothing less than startling.
As a movie, 9 is a decent entertainment you might revisit a few times but never be too passionate about. As a step toward more mature content in American animation, it is a tentative one but nonetheless welcome. For limited budgets, a rental might suffice but it doesn’t cause the purchaser waves of buyer’s remorse either. It’s not near greatness, but it is close enough to a breakthrough and sometimes that’s all you need.
9 is available from Amazon.com.