(Focus) Starring the voices of Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Martin Landau, Crispin Glover, Alan Oppenheimer, Fred Tatasciore, Tom Kane, Helen Wilson. Directed by Shane Acker
Is our humanity found in the skin and bones we inhabit, or something else which resides within? And, once those skin and bones are gone, what becomes of humanity?
The future is a bleak place. Humankind is gone, wiped out by machines of their own making. The world is empty, devoid of any living thing, a monument to the hubris of our kind.
And yet, life perseveres. A rag doll awakens in a laboratory, ocular goggles blinking owlishly at a world he can’t understand. He has no name, only a number painstakingly painted on his back; the number 9 (Wood). As he gazes quizzically at the world around him, he notices movement; a doll, much like himself. Curious (and voiceless), he runs out into the ruined streets, past the body of an elderly human man.
The other rag doll sees the fear in 9 and gently tells him “I’m a friend.” He finds a speaker so that 9 might have voice. He is 2 (Landau), a wise rag doll out looking for an artifact, one that 9 happens to have with him. 2’s joy at finding the artifact is short-lived as they are attacked by the Beast, a cat-like machine that takes 2 and the artifact with it. 9 runs away and is found by 5 (Reilly) who had been looking for 2.
5 brings 9 to the Sanctuary, where their pope-like leader 1 (Plummer) interrogates 9 before accepting him into their small band, which includes the prophet-like 6 (Glover) and the large, bullying 8 (Tatasciore). 9, however, can’t accept just leaving 2 to his fate and convinces 5 to go with him on a rescue mission.
They go to an abandoned factory where the Beast has locked 2 in a birdcage. The Beast is occupied with the artift, allowing 9 and 5 to rescue 2, but the Beast attacks. They are saved by 7 (Connelly), a rebellious rag doll who had left the Sanctuary to fight back against the Beast. Unfortunately, 9 inadvertently awakens something far more dangerous than the Beast and must convince the remaining rag dolls that they must fight together against the thing that wants them destroyed.
This is based on a short film Acker directed several years ago that made the film festival circuit (Da Queen and I first encountered it at the Florida Film Festival and were extremely impressed). The short was silent and extremely well-made. So, too, is this well-animated but the story is a little less focused. This seems more like an action movie done as animated CGI, whereas the Short was something new entirely.
The imagery is definitely the reason to go see this. The ruined world is one of newsreels, vaguely Eastern European architecture and an almost steampunk sensibility, science fiction that shows the past as future. The mechanized creatures are terrifying, so much so that I wouldn’t recommend small children go and see this. The rag dolls have distinct personalities, from the fearful 1 to the inquisitive 9. Each seems to have a specific purpose, although it isn’t clear whether that was intentional or not. That is one of the maddening elements of the story.
I don’t mind a story that requires viewers to connect the dots – I encourage it as I think sometimes our intellect needs pleasing as well as our sense of wonder. However, if you’re going to do that, you do need to provide dots for us to connect. The feature is only 79 minutes long – barely over an hour – and I thought it could have used another 10-15 minutes to give a bit more backstory, particularly in regards to the Scientist (Oppenheimer) and his intentions.
I liked the movie enough to recommend it, especially due to the vocal performances which are wonderful, and the visuals which are breathtaking. As bleak as the world of 9 is, it is still a world worth exploring. I just would have wished that Acker and producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) would have given us more to explore.
REASONS TO GO: Acker has created a breathtaking visual world that is worth exploring. The voice actors give each doll a distinct personality.
REASONS TO STAY: It seems like whole parts of the story are missing, particularly the backstory of the Scientist.
FAMILY VALUES: Terrifying mechanical monsters make this a no-no for small children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sanctuary that 1 leads the characters to is based on the Cathedral of Notre Dame, famously the sanctuary of the Hunchback.
HOME OR THEATER: I would see it in a theater just for the experience of the visuals.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: Standard Operating Procedure