There is still a general perception in the U.S. that "animation" means "perfect for all the kiddos." That seemed to be the assumption of many parents during the showtime I attended, just based on the number of small children in the theater. There's no blood in the movie, and most deaths happen nearly off screen (as a guy falls and dies, his arm will pass into view, but you'll see nothing else). The only on screen deaths are those of several of the little dolls that are the movie's focus (and I'm not even sure those were completely on screen - that's one bit where my memory isn't much help). There's also one character who engages in something almost like drug use (he's one of the little dolls and uses a magnet to pleasantly fuzz his brain for a bit).
If there are any parents who were blindsided by this movie (what do they think the word "post-apocalyptic" means, anyway?), the things I just mentioned are probably the things they will focus on when they work up a good mad over this movie. The thing that really struck me, though, was the ending. I'm not going to give any spoilers right now (for that, you'll have to read the synopsis), but the film ends in a way that I think is supposed to feel happy (hopeful?). For any kids in the audience, maybe it does feel happy. For any older viewers who take a second to think things through, though, it's anything but.
(Check this out for some great 9 movie posters that serve the added purpose of helping the confused remember who's who.)
Something terrible has happened that has killed every living thing in the world. With the last of his strength, an old man creates a little doll with the number 9 written on the back of it and gives it life. When 9 awakens, it is to an empty, ruined world. His creator lies dead on the floor and 9, who can't yet speak, is soundlessly horrified. He leaves, not noticing the papers on the floor detailing his creation. He takes with him the small, strange object that was with him when he woke.
The empty world, with its occasional glimpse of corpses, frightens 9, but he manages to find a friend. His new friend, 2, is like him, a tiny doll with a number on its back. 2 is a kindly inventor and helps give 9 the ability to speak. He is astonished and excited by the object 9 carries with him, but before he can speak to 9 about it, a beast with an animal skull for a head comes and takes 2 and the object away. 9, who is now damaged, walks until he collapses and is picked up and taken care of by 5, a one-eyed doll.
5 is something of a healer, but he is easily cowed by 1, the dolls' self-appointed leader. 1 is guarded by 8, a great hulking brute of a doll who wields a knife (he's the magnet-user I mentioned) - 1 (according to himself) knows best, because it was he who helped all the numbered dolls find safety while war was still raging. 1 writes 2 off, despite 9's assurances that he was alive when he was taken. 1 waited until poison killed off all humans and other lifeforms, and now 1 wants to wait until the beast, too, is gone. 9 decides to go after 2 on his own, and 5, despite his fear of 1 and 8, goes with him, because 2 is his friend.
9 and 5 do manage to find 2 and receive help defeating the beast from an unexpected source - 7, the only female doll (voice-wise, at least), a fearless warrior 5 had thought dead. Unfortunately, 9's curiosity gets the better of him, and he places the strange object he woke up with on something with matching symbols, without considering the potential ramifications of his actions. 2 pushes him out of the way and his life force/soul is sucked out of his body in moments. This then awakens a giant, terrible machine. 7, 9, and 5 barely manage to escape, and 7 takes them someplace where they might be able to find out what happened and what they can do to stop it. They meet with two more dolls 5 thought had died, 3 and 4, shy, silent twins who piece together and catalog whatever they can find about their ruined world's history and teach others whatever needs to be known. The twins recognize the machine - it's the same machine that killed everything. As for the symbols, 5 recognizes them as symbols that 6, a wild artist with visions, paints over and over again.
Although seeing 6 and his paintings would involve going back to 1, 9 is sure that this is necessary. He and 5 go and are caught by 1 and 8, but suddenly everyone finds themselves in danger when a bird-like machine enters 1's sanctuary and attacks. Fortunately, everyone is saved, but there is friction among the dolls. 1 still believes he knows what's best, 7 doesn't like him very much, etc. 3 and 4 have discovered that the symbols on 9's mysterious object were part of some sort of soul transference technology (magic?).
Meanwhile, 8 is busy standing guard. And using a magnet on his head. Anyway, the big scary machine has created a new little scary machine using, among other things, 2's body. This new little machine, which is a bit like a freaky, horror-movie cobra, hypnotizes its prey and then captures it inside its own body. It captures 8 and, if I remember right, 7. 1 doesn't think they should go after them, but 9 decides they should. He offers to go in and save them while 5 waits outside to blow the whole building up if he isn't able to make it out in a reasonable amount of time. 9 watches in horror as the machine "eats" 8's soul, although he manages to save 7 in time. 5 blows the building up, and there is much celebration.
Unfortunately, they all celebrated too soon. The big machine is still functional, and it eats 5's soul. 1 and 7 want to destroy the machine, but 6 says no, that everyone that was taken is trapped inside the machine. Then 6's soul is taken.
9 runs off on his own, back to the "source" - the place where he woke up. It is here that he finds the message his creator left him. His creator was also the creator of the machine, but the machine, which only contained its creator's intellect and not his soul, turned upon humanity and destroyed everything. So that life of some kind could continue to exist, the machine's creator made the dolls and gave each doll a facet of his own soul. The mysterious object he left with 9, the last of the dolls, has the power to destroy the machine.
9, armed with this new information, rushes back. 7, 3, 4, and 1 are trying to destroy the machine, but 9 assures them that he can destroy it and free those who were taken using the object. 9 wants to lure the machine while someone else presses the object's symbols in the right sequence, but, at the last moment, 1 takes his place. 1's soul is taken, and 9 presses the symbols. The machine is destroyed and the souls are stored in the object. Later, at a kind of funeral service for the dolls, the souls are freed. They say goodbye and go wherever it is that soul fragments go.
In the end, 9, 7, 3, and 4 are left. The machine is gone, and the world is theirs to live in now. Of course, there doesn't seem to be much world left to live in.
I wasn't aware, until a student worker at my library told me, that this movie is based on a short film. One place to watch the short film is here. Some of its elements, like the strange glowing object, the light bulb staff, and the final grave and ghost scene, can also be found in the movie, but other than that a lot was changed and added to when the longer movie was made. For instance, it looks like 9 is the only one left in the short film - everyone else had their soul sucked out by the creature and their skins incorporated into the creature (you can see their numbers on the creature's back).
The main reason I was looking forward to this movie was the animation. The way human skin is rendered still doesn't look quite right (although it's still much better than some CG films I've seen), but humans appear so rarely in the movie that this really doesn't become a huge issue. Most of the things that do appear in the movie involve textures that are rendered very nicely. This is a nitpick, but the only thing that bothered me a little was something about the way the cloth on the dolls' faces moved. It seemed to stretch in ways that didn't quite look natural to me. Still, for the most part everything looked really good.
It impressed me, how easy it was to tell each of the little numbered dolls apart. They all had very distinct personalities, and I liked the character designs (8 reminded me a little of a character in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, though). I liked the designs of the little machines, too, especially the cobra-like one. That one would be enough to give some people nightmares. Its abilities reminded me a little too much of the Grand Fisher in Bleach (another baddie that used the dead as lures), but otherwise it was a terrific bit of horror. The big machine was, in my opinion, the most ho hum of all the characters in the movie. I think it was ripped straight from the Matrix movies - its design (red glowing eye, octopus "legs", blue crackly effects, etc.), its menace, its ability to create more machines all on its own. That was a general problem, I suppose - even as I admired certain character designs, I kept getting reminded of other shows and movies. 7, for instance, made me think of the Minotaur in Tekkonkinkreet whenever she wore that bird skull and brandished her weapon.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie's visuals and the weirdness of the characters. I liked the gradual uncovering of the story behind the dolls' creation. The strange mix of technology and magic didn't bother me too much (who knows, that soul transference stuff might have been a very advanced kind of technology). I think the thing that bothered me the most about the movie was its very bleak ending.
The tone of the ending doesn't seem bleak, and maybe the movie's creators want people to come away with a hopeful feeling. I mean, the Big Bad is dead. That's great. But still. As far as we know, the only living things left (unless there's life on other continents that has survived poison gas being pumped into the air) are four little dolls. They can't create more little dolls, because they'd need more souls in order to do that. They can't reproduce, because they're just dolls. (Was it just me, or was there a hint of shy romance between 9 and 7? And, since they're facets of the same soul, wouldn't that be a little weird?)
So we're left with a dead world and four little dolls. I had a hard time figuring out the timeline of everything (it didn't look like the old man had died too long ago, and yet some of the ruins and dead appeared to be a lot older - also, 1 talked like the poison had been pumped into the air years ago). Maybe the hope is supposed to come in the form of life coming back to the planet eventually? Just looking at all the devastation, it doesn't seem very likely, but that all the hope I can see.
Some people might not mind such a bleak ending. I'm more of a "happy ending" kind of girl. I know, I know, I probably shouldn't have gone to see a movie set in a post-apocalyptic world, then, but, you never know, sometimes even films (or books) like that manage to end on mostly happy note. I just didn't really feel like that was the case with this one. I'm glad I saw the movie, but I needed a good dose of happy afterward.
This list of watch-alikes and read-alikes could be better - I had a tough time thinking of things to list that weren't all created by Tim Burton.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- I Am Legend (book) by Richard Matheson - A terrible plague of some kind has turned almost all of humanity (and many animals) into blood-thirsty creatures of the night. Robert Neville, who is immune to the disease, appears to be the only remaining uninfected human, although he is hopeful that there are others like him out there and that he can find a cure for the disease. Like 9, this is set in a post-apocalyptic world, but it's bleaker than 9 (at least the dolls have other dolls they can talk to). This book has been made into a movie featuring Will Smith - the movie is, not unexpectedly, pretty different from the book, although it keeps the basic premise. Personally, I enjoyed the book more.
- The Matrix (live action movie) - A hacker finds out that the "real" world is only a construct designed to keep people docile, so that they can be used as living batteries by robots - this hacker discovers that he is the only one who can free humanity from these robots and the constructed world. Those who like 9's "machines turning against humanity" theme might like this movie.
- The Nightmare Before Christmas (stop motion movie) - Jack Skellington of Halloween Town is bored of frightening people. When he discovers Christmas Town, he becomes obsessed with Christmas and eventually tries to take over Santa's role. Most of Halloween Town gets involved, but they all have a twisted idea of what Christmas is like. It's a recipe for disaster, and only Sally, a rag doll woman who is secretly in love with Jack, seems to realize this. Can she free Santa and stop Jack before Christmas is ruined? Those who liked some of the creepy visuals in 9 might like this movie.
- The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy: and Other Stories (book) by Tim Burton - This book features several macabre stories about boys and girls who are a little...strange. They try their best to fit in with the rest of the world, even though they look odd or aren't quite human, etc., but things never seem to go well for them. It's humorous, but in a dark and twisted way. Those who liked the aesthetics and strangeness of 9 might like this book.