I realise this is supposed to be Kids Film Friday, and when I put this flick on this morning I was expecting a kids’ film. Now that I’ve seen it though, I’m not so sure.
Toy Story meets The Matrix
It is the end of the world. A scientist – possibly the last human on the planet – has created a series of ragdoll homunculi and given them life at the cost of his own. They have to do something, and defeat an evil machine, and try not to die. Confusion ensues.
Let’s get the compliments out of the way first: this film looks fantastic. Director Shane Acker calls the look of the dolls “stitchpunk”, like a cross between steampunk and the PlayStation game Little Big Planet. It’s a unique design, and the animators have done an excellent job building the dead world the story takes place in. Humanity’s war with the machines is only recently ended with the genocide of every living thing on the planet, and the film is set in this wasteland of empty, crumbling buildings. It is only a pretty small region that we see, geographically speaking, but that’s due to the limitations in both the story and the length of the characters legs (the dolls are only about five or six inches tall). The various action scenes are tremendous as well, full of excitement and genuine peril. The adversaries that these little guys find themselves up against happens to be the biggest collection of nightmare fuel I think I’ve ever seen in a supposed kids film. They have been built out of whatever was to hand by the machine that was responsible for the apocalypse, and “whatever was to hand” seems to mostly be big sharp knives and animal skulls.
So what doesn’t work? Unfortunately, almost everything else. This film might be a new high-water mark in style over substance. 9 was originally a short made almost single-handedly by Shane Acker as a film school project, which came to the attention of the Tims, Burton and Bekmambetov (the pairing also responsible for this summer’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter which I am actually looking forward to) who produced this expansion. Personally, I think it would have been better left alone. There just isn’t enough story to fill even the slight eighty-minute running time. The film feels stretched, particularly in the first two acts. This has the result of both crippling the pacing and leaving the actual purpose of the story as a bit of a headscratcher. I was starting to feel bored and confused quite a few times between the action beats.
To play his dolls, Acker has gone for known actors as opposed to specialist voice actors, with varying degrees of success. I don’t think Elijah Wood was the right choice to play 9, the lead doll. He’s good in live-action, but his voice seems empty. He can do the inflection of emotions but there is a flatness to his voice; it doesn’t have soul. When someone’s best performance was as a mute serial killer, they probably shouldn’t do animation. Christopher Plummer on the other hand is as classy as ever playing 1, the oldest doll and the leader of the group. Jennifer Connelly is good as 7, but John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover and in particular Martin Landau aren’t given enough to really make an impression. Here’s a little bit of (mildly spoilerish) trivia though: the scientist who created both the dolls and the machine that ultimately destroyed all life on Earth is voiced by Alan Oppenheimer. He is the third cousin of Robert Oppenheimer, one of the men who built a machine that had the potential to destroy all life on Earth.
I’m still not sure who this film is really aimed at. Post-apocalypse movies never really play well with the younger crowd, especially when you add in the horrors of the machines, but this doesn’t quite have the depth and character development to resonate with an adult audience either. It’s an ambitious misfire, but a misfire nonetheless.