'9" is one of those movies that keeps reminding you that the people who made it are smarter than you are.
It takes place in a bleak future world after a war between the humans and the machines. Our side lost. The only survivors are a handful of tiny rag dolls, wandering a burned-out, post-war landscape.
After they find one another and realize they're not alone, their next concern is trying to avoid the terrifying last of the machines, a glowing electronic brain in the body of a mechanical cockroach.
Focus Features photo
No happy toons from the stars of “9”
The movie feels like Cormac McCarthy's dark Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Road," if it were performed by the Muppets. (The real screen adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen, is currently making the festival rounds and is slated for a November release.)
Obviously "9" is not what you'd call optimistic. Even though it's animated you'll want to think twice about bringing young kids or fidgety ones with short attention spans.
Co-produced by visionary genius Tim Burton with a vocal cast led by Elijah Wood as 9, and Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Martin Landau and Jennifer Connelly, it was expanded to feature length after writer-director Shane Acker's original 10-minute short was nominated for an Oscar in 2006.
Turns out, less was more. The plight of the cute but slightly creepy cast of "9" and its metaphor about salvaging the scraps of civilization might resonate in 10 minutes; in the longer running time, they feel stretched and bloated.
Worse, "9" commits the fundamental action-movie sin: It's hard to follow the action. There isn't consistent frame of reference. In a made-up world dripping with allegory and metaphor, populated with imaginary creatures, we need all the help we can get just to know what's going on.
The characters (the film's title comes from the numbers marked on their little doll bodies) seem barely more than the size of a match in one scene; in the next, they're rolling a drum full of gasoline.
What it lacks in continuity "9" tries to make up for in style. Its flashbacks to lost civilization are clothed in oppressive Nazi uniforms and Teutonic rigidity, as though maybe World War II didn't turn out the way we thought it did. (Hey, it works for Quentin Tarantino in "Inglorious Basterds" )
At another point in the story, a record of Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow" is salvaged from a junk heap and played on a vintage Victrola. Touches like this impart a retro visual style to "9," echoing cinematic milestones from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" to "The Wizard of Oz."
Unfortunately, esoteric cinema references mean more to film critics and directors than to general audiences. These particular symbols are also feeling pretty threadbare these days. Once iconic images, Nazis and Judy Garland are tired cliches in today's Hollywood, becoming more superficial and meaningless each new time they're used.
While "Wall-E" traveled a similar path, trying to reconstruct civilization from it discarded junk, it succeeded because its mechanical "hero" struck such a poignant emotional chord with his viewers.
In contrast, the cast of "9" leaves you exiting the theater the same way you came in, not really knowing what, much less who, they are -and not really caring, either way.
Except for one thing:
It's that business about a society that believed too much in technology, only to be done in by it.
Our daily lives are made more and more of technology in ways we scarcely notice anymore, from our iPhones and online "communities" to the 24-hour news cycle that wasted no time morphing into dueling propaganda streams.
As we let our machines do our thinking for us, the media offer more options for making "the news" what we want it to be. The result is less consensus about anything shared, shriller voices adding to the noise and general feelings that things are just beyond our grasp in ways we can't quite pinpoint.
Unlike past animated fables whose imaginary heroes helped us remember what it means to be human, these are better at letting us know what being a rag doll feels like.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This article includes a correction from the original published on Thursday, September 17, 2009. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy's first name was misspelled. The Maui News apologizes for the error.