It would be one thing if debut writer-director Shane Acker opted to keep the hero of his new animated film 9 — a rag-doll creation who awakens in a post-apocalyptic Earth to find nothing crawling around but a monstrously frightening cat-like robot on the hunt — chugging along the path of inoffensive earnestness. This zip-up idealist (voiced by Elijah Wood), known only as “9” — as per the number on his back — eventually encounters similar creatures, also with assigned digits. None but numbers 2 (Martin Landau) and 5 (John C. Reilly) treat 9 with any amount of respect, but he apparently either instantly likes them or needs their company enough to risk his and everyone else’s “lives” in a standard hero’s journey. His polar opposite, 1 (Christopher Plummer), believes 9 is foolhardy and that the best option is to hide. The two clash for the next hour over “what to do” (as if there’s much else going on around these parts) in such a broad, laughably extremist manner that one begins to think the best option for all involved is for them to kill each other already.
But that’s not all Acker has in store as he throws the kitchen sink at the last act, including sequences shamelessly aping Lord of the Rings and WALL-E, and a blurry, barely thought-out anti-Communism message. (“Subjugate them!” barks one villain. “What’s that mean?” head-scratches his dopey assistant.) Amazingly, within only about 80 minutes, Acker works 9 into a lather of messy New Age plotting involving a hopelessly complicated plan to save the day with a talisman, cryptic symbols, and the soul of humanity.
While 9 discovers (not devises, mind you) this nonsense, his numeric comrades have somehow managed to secure a giant cannon and aim it at the problem. (This all happens offscreen, yet 9 doesn’t blink an eye when he returns to find his friends have upgraded from sticks with lamps on the tips to weapons of mass destruction.) In comes 9, shouting his sudden fighters down with his own soulful plan. When, as an audience member, you find yourself begging them to turn that cannon the other way and blow the main character to smithereens, there’s a serious problem.
It should be noted that this film, produced in part by Tim Burton, was unwisely not screened with the 3-D technology that was clearly built into it. How that could magically transform a one-dimensional plot into something resembling a decent story is unclear — though I can imagine it would heighten the whiz-bang factor — but the visuals are extraordinary and the hard PG-13 action is handled capably. I can say the same, however, for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen — company that Shane Acker and 9, for all their ambition, have earned.
So 9 isn’t exactly a 10, but you’ve got plenty of other options if you like your cartoon characters teetering on the brink of extinction.
Dir. Katsuhiro Otomo; feat. Mitsuo Iwara, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama, Taro Ishida, Masaaki Ohkura (R)
An atomic bomb fell on Tokyo in 1988, and 31 years later, Japan’s still dealing with the fallout. Gangs of delinquent biker gangs fight turf wars on the streets, and really old-looking babies have dangerous mental powers, I think. Seriously if you understand this movie, please explain it to me.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Dir. Isao Takahata; feat. Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi (not rated)
The Japanese just will not let the whole A-bomb thing go, will they? Grave of the Fireflies may be set during WWII, but it’s the end of the world for Seita and Setsuko when their mother is killed in a firebombing. The children escape to an out-of-the-way bomb shelter, where they begin to slowly starve to death.
Dir. Christian Volckman; feat. Robert Dauney, Patrick Floersheim, Crystal Shepherd Cross, Laura Blanc, Isabelle Van Waes (R)
Paris 2054: The government monitors every movement in an isolated, corporation-controlled City of Lights. Features some nifty B&W motion-capture animation and the voice of Daniel “James Bond” Craig.
Dir. Ralph Bakshi; feat. Bob Holt, Jesse Wells, Richard Romanus, David Proval, James Connell (PG)
Two wizards, Blackwolf and Avatar, lead armies into battle for control of earth’s ruins in this early effort from influential animator Ralph Bakshi. The film combines his signature rotoscoping technique with comic-strip-style Dungeons & Dragons characters and live-action footage of Nazi troops.