What is a soul? A new Pixar movie coming out Christmas Day on Disney+ looks to tackle this question, but in 2009, a different animated film asked the same question, with mixed results. After eleven years, the movie in question, with all its rough edges, remains a thoughtful if also clunky underrated gem.
9, an apocalyptic fantasy from animation director Shane Acker (based on his Oscar-winning 2005 short) and producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, is the sci-fi movie you need to watch before it leaves Netflix on November 15.
Released in 2009 (coincidentally along with other "9" movies District 9 and Nine that year), 9 is a post-apocalyptic adventure film about sentient puppets (known as "Stitchpunks" in the script) who must discover their true nature and avoid the grip of mechanical beasts in a ravaged world. As the movie reveals, civilization was wiped out when human-made machines weaponized for war turned against their creators.
The film sports a prolific cast chock full of veteran performers whose raspy and soft voices lend the movie its only warmth. Elijah Wood stars as "9," the newest member of the Stitchpunks who awakens in a strange world. He is helped by "2," a tender scientist voiced by the late Martin Laundau. Other voices include John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Crispin Glover, Christopher Plummer, Fred Tatasciore, and Alan Oppenheimer.
Most remarkable about the story of 9 is how "small" it is. There is no last civilization of puppets, there is no complex political story about power over dwindling populations and resources. There's only "man" (a relative term) versus "nature" (again, relative). There isn't even a pure, scheming antagonist in 9, just a raw force that is only operating on leftover programming.
The world in 9 is gone with a capital-G, and the nine Stitchpunks are the only remnants of life on Earth. Even when their story is finished and ends on a hopeful note, it's still a bleak ending that suggests their sacrifices will be long forgotten.
Running at a lean hour and 20 minutes on a script that's light on world-building, 9 is a cross-stitching of Toy Story and Final Fantasy. (I remember my friends in 2009, all of us snarky gamers in high school, calling it a LittleBigPlanet movie.) It's a pure adventure film replete with dark horror that doesn't ask too many questions about the threads and needles of its story. That's not a bad thing. Sometimes we just need to let puppets be alive.
The winning factor of 9 is its imagination. The human war with machines is a boring-if-rote set up for the story, but the monstrosities mankind left in their wake are visual wonders. The in-world materials of 9 are all artificial, everything is made up of scrap metal and wool, yet the beasts retain the gooey textures of a Lovecraftian monster.
When the Stitchpunks get "hurt," their ripped threads expose metal skeletons. There is not an ounce of blood spilled in 9, yet you get the strong impression whenever something "bleeds." The terrifying world of 9 is steampunk art at its most primal, in which giant worms, spiders, cats, and pterodactyl monsters look both ancient and mechanical.
In a 2009 interview with Den of Geek, Acker said the monsters are "based loosely" on mythological creatures born out of junkyard material. "I come from an architectural background, and as well I’m a sculptor and a woodworker, so I love the way things come together in the detail," Acker said. "And one of the concepts that we had on the film, was that everything that was in the world could be built and be in our real world, so we wanted a real tactile quality to it."
"The world is made up of little pieces of things left over, so how do you recombine those in a creative way, to create these characters and creatures? And then we’d take trips out to these junkyards here in L.A., and go and get bags and bags of junk, and take them back to the studio and look at them, and use that to inspire us, and find little ideas in that."
9 is, to put it bluntly, a heavy metal movie. You may even remember it for its still-hype trailer that weaponized the epic angst of Coheed and Cambria's "Welcome Home" to great effect. At the time, animated films were seen by mainstream audiences as belonging to the domain of families and children. The medium was, and still is, ruled by Disney and Pixar. 9 was a jolt of viciousness that was lacking in mainstream animation.
There was plenty of buzz for 9 on the internet, but upon its release in September 2009, the film faded fast into obscurity. On a budget of $30 million, it grossed just $48.4 million worldwide and has a divided 57% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (The audience meter doesn't fare any better, sitting at 56%.) In some ways that trailer was 9's downfall. Despite its honesty — it didn't deceive audiences on anything about the film — the trailer seemed to promise a much bigger and more complex epic than what was actually delivered.
9 is a good movie with lots of visual imagination and just enough heart to give the movie wattage. But there's simply not enough parts to make its machinery really work. Still, the movie is an adventure, and an important one that advocates noble deeds for a greater good even when there's no one left to appreciate them.
9 is streaming now on Netflix until November 15.