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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


A burlap doll leads the fight against evil machines in 9.
9 is one of the most offbeat animated films I've ever seen. It is being released by Focus Features, the independent arm of Universal Pictures, which also brought us spring's Coraline. I'm starting to sense a trend here: Focus is interested in distributing original, alternative animated fare. And more power to them. I love the Pixar movies and (most of) the DreamWorks projects as much as the next person, but it's nice to see some darker, edgier fare get a crack at the box office as well. As a long-time believer that animation isn't necessarily just kids' stuff, seeing something this radically different is exciting, even if the plot doesn't quite reach the same blissful level as the visuals.

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, where mankind has been erased thanks to the so-called Great Machine, a contraption that formed its own intelligence, built other machines, and took over the world. The only survivors are a band of little burlap dolls with lots of buttons and zippers attached. How they came to be alive is initially a mystery to them as well as to us. Our hero is, appropriately, #9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), who wakes up in an empty room and ventures out into the wasteland to discover that others like him exist. They are, however, all in hiding. The leader is #1 (Christopher Plummer), who fears the Great Machine and its minions, and so chooses to survive simply by playing it safe. No one dares question his authority until one of the group is captured by the Great Machine. It is then that #9 dares to suggest the dolls take a more pro-active approach in fighting the machines if they want to survive long-term. His pals #3 (John C. Reilly) and #7 (Jennifer Connelly) help him plot to destroy the Great Machine. In the process, they also uncover the truth about their own origins.

The first thing you notice about 9 is its incredible visual style. Director Shane Acker (expanding on his own Oscar-nominated short) has imagined an entire fantasy world and packed it with enough detail that we can effectively get lost in it. I'm a sucker for movies that completely transport me to worlds that don't exist, and this one does so beautifully. Not only is the post-apocalyptic world fully textured, but so are the dolls themselves. There have never been characters like these before, which makes them inherently interesting. Amazingly, given their cobbled-together nature, the animators have made them very expressive. On every visual level, the movie is phenomenal to look at. I suspect that 9 will be a contender in the Best Animated Feature category at this years Oscars, so detailed and gorgeous is it.

It's pretty intense as well. The rating is PG-13 for a reason; small kids might be terrified. A sense of menace is effectively, excitingly conveyed. Because the dolls are made of burlap and the machines are made of steel and metal, we know that one side is far more lethal than the other. 9 has several really strong action sequences that play on the idea of the dolls being created from such fragile material.

I wish the story had been more deeply realized. 9 raises some rather intriguing ideas that are almost political in nature, such as how one should respond when the "leader" is making bad decisions based on fear. A lot more could potentially have been done to show how #9 questions #1's motives in choosing to simply hide from the machines. Without giving anything away, there are also a number of philosophical and even spiritual issues raised by the film. I enjoyed seeing a movie - especially an animated one - tackle some complex subject matter, yet also wish there'd been more of it. Given that the running time is a mere 72 minutes (minus end credits), 9 had a lot of time to potentially explore some of these themes much, much further. Maybe there's still some reluctance to think that American audiences would tolerate a movie that had more enlightenment than action; I like to think that additional probing would have made 9 a classic for intelligent adults, rather than just the deeper-than-normal thrill ride it ultimately is.

But hey - did you catch the part where I said it contained philosophical and spiritual themes? How great is that in any movie, much less an animated one? Even if not plunged to the greatest depths, there's something profoundly affecting about the ideas in this story. By making the heroes non-human, Acker and screenwriter Pamela Pettler are able to investigate the most human of qualities: the belief that some larger entity gave us life for a reason. That's a seriously cool topic for a film, and the fact that 9 looks so breathtakingly vivid and alive is reason enough to catch it on the big screen.

( out of four)

9 is rated PG-13 for violence and scary images. The running time is 1 hour and 19 minutes.

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