© Focus Features
#9, voiced by Elijah Wood, and #7, voiced by Jennifer Connelly, flee for their lives from the Fabrication Machine in Shane Acker’s epic adventure fantasy 9.
A masterpiece of mood, but so very draining
reviewed by Mark Burns
Steampunk Pinocchios fight to render a hellscape somewhat less damned in this gothic end-times fantasy.
The Great War/World War II apocalyptic smash-up is at an end. H. G. Wells-inspired robots have scythed organic life; humanity is extinct; and the only clues to civilization lie in ruin. Emerging into this dingy bleakness is 9, a clockwork soul zippered up in a swatch of burlap. Bewildered, he stumbles into a community of eight fellow Smurf-scale creations, each a fragment of their scientist creator’s essence. When he stretches out into the wilderness and accidentally awakens the mother of mechanical menace, 9 must discover his past and thus learn how to thwart his own kind’s extinction.
The film is the brainchild of director Shane Acker, a relative newcomer given rein by producer Tim Burton to expand on his original 10-minute short by the same name (viewable in its entirety on YouTube). Acker remains strikingly true to his original, retaining the style, character and summary tale while expanding with fully fleshed story, grander menace and voices. Perhaps even a point.
Story is fleshed out smartly, focusing on one creature’s awakening to a ruined world, then following him as he finds his source and purpose. Haunting clues serve as contextual touchstones to develop background, gradually prying insight on this alternate reality. 9’s curiosity and bewilderment enhance the alienness of the experience and drive the cast unto chaotic peril.
Coloring this trip is a weird amalgamation of alchemy, science and industrialism. This is one nightmarish trip. Just how dark? A giant robo-arachnid Hal buzz-saws the spine of a human skeleton, melding it with scrap to create a robotic bird of prey that hunts little dolls. Or take, for example, the occasional graying cadavers. Either way, this is not-for-kids dark. It’s a lush darkness, though, gorgeously and meticulously envisioned in hues of steel and oil, char and dirt.
Certainly there’s a brilliance to this. There’s a deft hand at work, imbuing rich personality in little satchels of soul and placing them in a very unsettling world stalked by skittering awfulness. It’s easy to imagine how such lush and imaginative imagery would make Burton bolt upright from his bed of nails and say, Whoah, cool! But it is so very draining, and — without spoiling anything — the end falls woefully short of uplift, coming across like hollow platitudes at a funeral.
This is a masterpiece of mood, and certainly worth a watch. But after a view you’ll likely be craving something bright and stupid.
Good animated drama • PG-13 • 79 mins.