A little cloth doll (voiced by Elijah Wood) awakens in a large, dark and empty room, wondering where he could possibly be and who he actually is. There is a number 9 on his back, a clue to his identity, but he is not satisfied with looking around the room in spite of having found an intriguing device there, and goes over to the window to survey the scene. What he finds is not a happy sight: miles of devastated city all around, the aftermath of a terrible war, but 9 is not the sole survivor as he spots a lone figure moving purposefully through the rubble...
9 started life as a like-titled ten minute short animation that was Oscar nominated for writer and director Shane Acker's troubles, leading him to be offered a lot more money and a celebrity voice cast to expand it to an eighty minute feature. Originally it was silent, but such were the conventions of making cartoons for the mass market that from its quirky beginnings it was retooled into something more obviously adventure oriented for the family audience, although many found it too scary for children, leaving it in something of a dilemma as to who it should really be aimed at. Yet from such hard to categorise productions do cult movies grow.
9, the character, starts out not being able to speak in a nod to the initial version, but the other cloth-fashioned doll (they both turn out to be some kind of little robots) helps him with that. He is 2 (Martin Landau), and something of a boffin who is clued up as to what makes them tick, so you can imagine he is very interested in the mysterious device, but before they can sort out what is going on, a monster machine that looks like some kind of metallic carnivorous mammal is bearing down on them. This is an indication of where the plot was headed, as it was mainly action sequences that concerned Acker of the running away from the baddie variety.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, and he didn't succumb to the lure of rendering this more kid-friendly by adding cutesy (or worse, goofily disgusting) gags every minute or so, which told you that we were supposed to be taking this seriously. It's just that even with this idiosyncratic design that captivated the eye, there was too much adherence to the clichés of post-apocalyptic cinema, and indeed that design looked as if it would have been better served by stop motion puppetry to give it that tactile quality which the computer animation tended to smooth out. A ruined landscape with quirky creatures contained therein would have been more visually satisfying that way.
But what of the message? If there was another thing that 9 needed, it was a stronger sense of allegory because watching it unfold you get the feeling it was trying to tell you something, yet was vague on the details. Our hero meets up with a bunch of other living dolls, numbered 1 (Christopher Plummer) - the cowardly, bulheaded leader - to 8, and they all had their part to play, so you might think this was a straightfaced parody of politicians who lead their citizens into dangerous situations they have no notion of getting out of. Then again, with the humans extinct, we learn, due to a world war against their mechanical creations maybe it's a lesson about being wise with the fruits of technology, but you could get that from The Terminator and its sequels. As 9 ends up unleashing a huge killer robot later on, it's more likely to be teaching us about taking responsibility for our actions and their consequences, all a bit earnest and worthy, but it's too short to do anything but pass the time agreeably if not provocatively. Music by Danny Elfman and Deborah Lurie.