I have a bad feeling 9 will not be doing well in the box office, my friends. For starters, it's PG-13. While that somehow doesn't stop parents from bringing infants to horror films, action films, and other such movies featuring scary scenes and loud noises, it seems like the rating combined with the lack of sassy talking animals will hurt the box office take.
Worse yet, it's a serious animated film filled with dystopian themes and scathing commentary on the scientific obsession of creating true artificial intelligence. The closest the film comes to joyful is somber and heartfelt, and the characters spit out words that roll more freely off the fingers of a writer than the mouth of a big Hollywood actor doing voice overs in an animated film.
For those who don't know, 9 is the feature length adaptation of the Academy Award nominated short of the same name by writer director Shane Acker. It follows the story of 9, one of nine living rag dolls created by a scientist before all of human civilization was destroyed by an autonomous army of self-programming robots. The robots actively seek out and destroy life, and have dwindled the rag doll population to four of the originals and newly animated 9. 9 sets out to figure out just what is happening and save his people before all life is destroyed.
The voice acting is strong, though some struggle with maintaining the character voice through some heavy dialogue. This was a major surprise to me since I feared the worst in the addition of voice acting. The original short did not have dialogue. Everything was told through the animation. The feature version is actually bettered by the expanded running time and selective bits of voice acting. At least one third of the film has no dialogue, but there is enough that happens before and after with almost-narrative voice acting to explain quite clearly what is going on. This expository style is reduced with each successive scene, relying on dialogue and clear animated differences to establish characters and relationships once the audience gets what is going on. It's difficult to describe. Acker and screenwriter Pamela Pettler assume the audience is smart enough to get what is happening once the groundwork is laid out and let the visuals push the narrative after the first act.
The visuals are gorgeous. If there has never been a solid argument in favor of CGI animation as an art form, this film should serve as the position paper. There is no way what is achieved in 9 could ever have been accomplished with a non-digital form of animation. The life, the spark, the detail of these characters, the essential nuances of light and darkness, the raw energy of the dark dystopia: all of this is realized through a flawless dance with CGI. The characters feel real, not because they are realistic, but because the animation creates a clear world with high levels of consistent detail (color, line style, shapes, architecture, book fonts, fabric movement, weather patterns, everything) on every single object. If more animated films (and live action ones, too) took this notion to heart, I fear I would never be able to complain about distracting CGI being used in place of practical effects that would only look better.
The score by Deborah Lurie, adapted from themes composed by Danny Elfman, is gorgeous. It's a shame that it will probably be ruled ineligible at the Academy Awards because it's adapted from Elfman's work. It's perfect. Acker relies of Lurie's score to tell the story when words no longer provide pure exposition. You cry because of Lurie's music. You feel tense because of Lurie's music. You get angry because of Lurie's music. And you feel closure because of Lurie's music. The entire sound design of the film is top notch, but Lurie's score makes it truly special.
So, my friends, I fear the worse for 9. Sure, it will quickly develop a vocal cult following. There will be hundreds of people proudly marching in Halloween parades across the country as their favorite character. Fan art and fan fiction will quickly pick up speed over the web, and DVD sales shall be small but steady. Eventually, people will start posting "I can't believe I didn't see 9 in theaters" when it's too late. Years from now, people will lament how a film like 9 should have had a better shot. Years after that, it will begin to infiltrate not only best animated film lists, but best film lists. Not near the top, but consistently held in the ranks of great cinema.
However, those days are far in the future. Right now, we'll have to live with people not witnessing a beautiful bout of clever social commentary through a fanciful story of the power and responsibility of life. I hope my prediction is wrong and 9 soars triumphantly to the top of the box office and is admired for its daring artistic vision and intellectual approach to more mature animation. Somehow I doubt this will be the film to do it in America.