Puppets With Weapons

The message of the mediocre '9': Evil is bad, but cuteness is awesome!

What the world needs now, thought the producers of 9, is a really cute version of Terminator. Like, a Captain Kangaroo sort of thing, only with killer robots that have murdered everyone on Earth. But to keep it upbeat, there will still be a tiny vestige of humanity in the form of adorable puppets who live in the burned-out wastelands.

To make it perfect, the lead puppet, known as 9, is voiced by Elijah Wood. Most of us remember Wood best for his role as Boy Playing Videogame in Back to the Future Part II, but he also had a small role in Three Part Fantasy Geek Spectacular Elf-Fest playing Frodo, the hairy-footed moppet with the heart of gold. He's basically cuteness incarnate, and his voice sounds like a slightly more feminine version of Shirley Temple run through a marshmallow-sweetening machine.

The story starts with 9 waking up to see that his creator is dead and the world has been blasted to bits by mechanical Nazi super-bots. 9 wanders out and is found by another robot, 2, who promptly gets taken away by a mechanized cat-skeleton. 9 is then taken to the enclave of puppet-bots, including the imperious 1 (Christopher Plummer), the artistic 6 (Crispin Glover), the clownish 5 (John C. Reilly) and the lone female-bot of the future, 7 (Jennifer Connelly).

It's weird that there's only one girl-bot, but, to be fair, none of the robots have genitals, so I guess it's more like there's only one female hired to voice one of the bots, which is great, because if we give women jobs, they'll stop shaving or something.

Anyway, the visuals in 9 are a mixture of steam-punk and knit-craft. If you like that sort of thing, then you probably spend all day reading boingboing.net, so you don't have time to go to the movies. But if your Internet connection goes down, you can always check out 9 and just stare and drool, because they've really mastered those styles. I'd note that the computer-generated 3-D animation is freakishly fluid, but that's how computer-generated 3-D animation looks these days, so praising the filmmakers for getting that right would be like giving third-graders high marks in math for using a calculator.

9 is, nonetheless, nicely filmed. There's some real concern for proper framing, lighting and clear storytelling, and at no point is there a high-speed action sequence shot entirely in close-up. But failing to get things terribly wrong doesn't make for a good film. It does make for a mediocre film, though, and 9 is quintessentially mediocre: easy to sit through, reasonably well-paced, and just stupid enough to be forgettable.

At its worst, it attempts to be deep. There's a warning about technology getting out of control, but I think we've all heard that one before, and it's not like saying it again with puppets makes it any more powerful. My friend Smith thought that it was evocative of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, but I'm not sure if that's because of the paranoia about technology, or because the film seems to be set in an alternate-reality Nazi Germany.

Or so it turns out in the explain-y part of the movie. For a while, 9 proceeds with a sense of mystery. The lead robot is mute, and the world is mysteriously empty. But pretty soon, all the bots start talking in goofy cartoon voices, and lots of backstory is shoveled up in the form of expository sequences. The sequences are animated, so it's not like it's just talking puppet heads, but still, they're very much tacked-on and artificial.

9 is based on a short film of the same name in which the robots are silent, and little explanation is given. In this extended remix version, the attempt to explain everything backfires, because the explanation is an inconsistent mix of science, magic and the need to have cute robots carry makeshift Mad Max weapons while fighting fascist machines.

It's basically what you'd get if you asked Ralph Bakshi to make a kids' movie, or if the Muppets took Manhattan by means of military force and nuclear weapons. Everything is presented so children and tea party-ers can understand it, and the ending wraps things up with a mystical nod toward spirituality, or whatever the robot equivalent of that is.

Definitely not the worst thing you'll see this fall, 9 is nonetheless not a film I'd recommend, unless you haven't yet been exposed to its central message, which is something like, "Evil is bad; cuteness is good."


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