"9" is not a perfect 10, but its imperfection is what makes it gripping and bewitching.
This post-apocalyptic cartoon fable is the rare piece of 3-D animation that feels handmade from cuffs to collar. Shane Acker, the writer-director, doesn't provide us with the riches of a born storyteller. But he just may be a born moviemaker. As a visual artist he sweeps you up in gimcrack panoramas that merge into a desolate beauty. This movie will make young-adult and older viewers alike gasp like toddlers amazed by their first pop-up book. Its imagery invades your eyes from every corner of the screen and swathes itself around your brain.
The film unfolds in a nightmare London of collapsed and dangerous factories and haunting spires. A ruined estate and a cathedral sanctuary are the last repositories of humane culture amid streets dominated by scissory, self-powered mechanical villains. The scariest may be a steely winged stingray.
What holds you, though, is the heartiness of the movie's diminutive protagonists. "9" centers on a group of nine raggedy dolls who can talk, think and move. They debate how to survive in a world where malevolent super-machines have eliminated all other organic life.
If that last sentence is a stopper, it's meant to be. In movies, sci/fantasy audiences have grown used to computerized devices that take on the worst human traits and eliminate their masters. But Nos. 1 through 9, a bunch of flawed stringless puppets, are not merely the robots' opposite numbers.
They're made partly from mechanical parts, as sophisticated as speaker systems and as simple as zippers. But from the moment you see human hands stitching No. 9 together out of burlap, what animates them - and gives them spirit - remains a tantalizing mystery.
No. 9 (Elijah Wood) is the perfect hero for this story. He comes to life long after the others and thus is as clueless as we are about a world that could make cowards out of anyone. And because he's new, he's not jaded or burdened with outmoded ideas. He's resolute about leaving no rag-dolls behind in battle - and about fighting for their immortal souls after death.
The ever-fresh Wood is ideal for the voice of his role, but so is the warm and forthright Martin Landau as the tottering No. 2, who carries a candle on his head and is a self-taught doctor and tinkerer. John C. Reilly reminds us of how great he is at being good as No. 9's bighearted sidekick, the one-eyed No. 5. Christopher Plummer imbues the self-appointed leader, No. 1, with baleful resignation. Best of all is Jennifer Connelly as the swashbuckling No. 7, the band's swooping woman warrior. Enacting a character who rushes into action in a feathered skull mask, Connelly unleashes a cheerful bravado unlike anything she's done in live-action movies.
No. 7 is a merry woman fit for Robin Hood. The rest of the figures and images in "9" suit the London of H.G. Wells or Arthur Conan Doyle. This "steampunk" environment is both apt and striking.
"9" has been said to take place years from now simply because it is a post-apocalyptic fantasy. But Acker sets the key action in an alternate-universe version of the 1920s and 1930s. That's when the various awful "isms" of the 20th century created totalitarian governments that reduced nation-states to destructive machines. Against the hollowness of machines, Acker sets the soulfulness of dolls. Improbably, and spectacularly, he makes their quest for life a heroes' journey.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for violence and scary images)
Running time: 1:19
With the voices of Elijah Wood (9), John C. Reilly (5), Jennifer Connelly (7), Christopher Plummer (1), Crispin Glover (6) and Martin Landau (2)
Directed by Shane Acker