Hair and fur have long posed a challenge to stop-motion animators. Fire and smoke, too, and water—not just for animators, but for special effects technicians struggling to recreate realistic sea battles between 1:10 scale model ships, filmed at half-speed for best effect but still heaving cheesily between giveaway water droplets in studio tanks.
No such stumbling blocks beset digital animators. The technology has advanced to the point where if the production artists can dream it up, the animators can make it happen, and with ever more stunning results. Smoke, flames, haze, hair, fur—by any measure the inanimate has never looked more animate in animation. The problem for animation auteurs these days seems to be one of creating story, plot, characterization—all things that seem increasingly irrelevant to feature animation.
I'm not talking about creating hyper-real animated objects ready for mass-marketing in toy and Happy Meal form to young audiences. I mean creating characters and stories to interest older and more—let's just say it—sophisticated viewers, savvy to the language of movies, who expect more than just visual bedazzlement. I certainly expect more than bedazzling hyperrealism from feature animation, and in this respect I sometimes feel part of a shrinking minority. Even as a kid, waiting for the next Ray Harryhausen creation to lurch from behind a rock in some Saturday afternoon Sinbad matinee, I never expected them to look realistic. They just looked cool.
You could argue that Harryhausen's animation was generally the best part of the movies in which it appeared. At least it was an added attraction. Nowadays the animation is the attraction, is the movie, the entire reason for going. 9, produced by Tim Burton and directed by protégé Shane Acker, who adapted it from his Oscar-nominated 2005 short, is a visually amazing movie, no doubt about it. Almost as though channeling his mentor, the enthusiastic director has packed his animated décors with familiar Burtonian touches, down to the last shelf of antiquated miniature tomes and stylized wood-grain in old floorboards. His creations are every bit as creaky and clattery as anything the Quay Brothers have come up with, and the movie's whole grand retro-Edwardian production design comes as close as anything Pixar has produced to being a fully imagined alternate world.
The visual possibilities are endless, and Acker unquestionably seizes more than a few brilliant ones. In short, 9 is about a group of tiny homunculi stitched out of burlap and clockwork innards and set free on Earth just as humanity was drawing its last breath. Their world—a kind of steampunk post-apocalypse, barren and crawling with killer automata cobbled together from bones and brass fittings, is the one Jules Verne would have pictured if Acker had time-traveled back to 1880 and told the increasingly misanthropic futurist about The Terminator. The premise is the same: Machines turn on their masters and proceed to mop the floor with humanity. Though the context makes the back-story almost superfluous, we do learn it a bit at a time in the form of simulated newsreels—now it's The Terminator as imagined by Leni Riefenstahl—and the stupefyingly cool use of simulated still photos from this final combat. Imagine vintage photos of the London Blitz or the battle for Stalingrad only with mechanical kill-bots from this 1936 Terminator crashing through the ruins. Shane Acker did, and boy is it marvelous.
I can't say this enough: 9 is visually astonishing. Which is why it's such a shame that everything else about it is shoddy retread, cliché piled upon cliché "borrowed" from something that was originally borrowed from Star Wars, which was borrowed from Akira Kurosawa in the first place. It's fine to encode a movie with references to other movies—I can't decide if the scissor-lipped beastie with the porcelain baby-head is a tribute to Hellraiser or the Quay Brothers—but when everything else in your movie is borrowed from other movies, you're in trouble. Give us ideas to match this technology, damn it! Granted, this has always been the problem with technology as it concerns the movies: It's always racing ahead while new ideas tend to languish in the rear. Technology is simply used up, improved on and abandoned before its full artistic potential—or rather the innovative potential of limitations—is fully realized.
It's worth mentioning that the vocal talent of 9 is both asset and weakness. Elijah Wood would have been perfect in the voice part of the protagonist—if there had never been a Lord of the Rings. His voice even drifts in and out of his old Middle Earth accent. By the third piping "He's alive!" or "I'm over here!" you simply start seeing Frodo, so little does Wood's character in 9 offer to hold our attention. Same with the burlap mini-man voiced by John C. Reilly—you immediately just start seeing John C. Reilly.
So this is, as they say, the world we're living in. Digital animators can breathe life into burlap dolls and coax from them human-like movement and a whole suite of nuanced human facial expressions, but with only ersatz emotions and nothing new to say.
9 continues at the Carmike 10.