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Focus Pictures
ON THE RUN: Hero 9 (left) and ninja girl 7 run from danger.

Hello, Dollies

Animated '9' borrows badly from better screen adventures for young audiences

By Richard von Busack

IT IS especially disheartening to see the preview of a movie and think, "I'd like to see that," and then suddenly realize that you did—a week ago. A lot of flaws can be covered by 3-D animation. Nobody sane would describe The Final Destination as much of a movie, for example. But in the swimming-pool death-trap sequence, some witty animator floated a discarded Band-Aid toward the viewers. That familiar disgusting experience at a public pool is honored at last—a little value-added to go with the $3.50 3-D goggle tax.

The previews of 9 in 3-D look like an altogether different movie than the one I saw flat. In the trailer, the muddy, khaki-green/gray colors define themselves into a foreground and background instead of making the screen a square pond of Anderson's Pea Soup.

The little burlap dolls look crisp in front of the postapocalyptic debris behind them. And you want your visuals when the script is so startlingly derivative—a quest picture leading to a spiritual revelation of such flatulence that Pastor Rick Warren couldn't match it in a month of Sundays.

The title character (voiced by Elijah Wood) is a doll-size creature with a zipper front and camera lenses for eyes. As he awakes, the Age of Man has just come to a noisy end; the bodies of the last dead humans haven't turned to skeletons yet. A terrible war has destroyed the world. The only living creatures are these mysterious living dolls and their hunters: killer androids made of bones and servos. Mark Pauline of Survival Research Laboratories must have been one of the last humans to die.

The creature 9, mute at first, encounters some of his fellow creatures: 2, a wise old man; then comes the ninja girl 7 (voiced by Jennifer Connelly), the only woman in the picture—a warrior with a seagull skull for a helmet; most important somehow is a ponderous, self-important bishop (Christopher Plummer), a belfry dweller with an English penny as a jewel in his mitre.

Without much introduction to each other or the audience, the poorly differentiated bunch deal with a fateful mistake by 9. It's the moment our hero powers up a kill-bot, a sort of cast-iron version of Cthulu, with a magic talisman. This happens for no explicable reason: Curiosity? A momentary lapse of sanity?

There's a certain flair to the characterization here, particularly the beasts that keep rising up and threatening the little homunculi with their tigerish talons. But 9 invites you to make allowances for it. It's only a cartoon (which doesn't excuse it for its terrible lack of story; this is the year of Up and Coraline). The film is designed for younger viewers (who won't be so young that they haven't seen some of the plot devices here). It is as simple as it is so that viewers can fill in the spaces with their own imaginations (which is just underwriting by another name).

And as an animator friend sternly reminded me, the cost of cartoons is such that the lowest common denominator has to be reached. Thus 9 is what it is, with one morally monochrome battle after another recorded in 360-degree camera spin.

Finally, a film sold with the slogan "Not your father's animation" really ought to have had some serious innovation to back things up. It's not just the fathers out there who'll have seen this stuff before.

There's too much evolved CGI animation to make excuses for the film's really bad shape. If there were any original ideas in 9, I missed them—something that wasn't a pastiche or a nod or an homage to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

The burlap skins of the characters look like Oogie Boogie in The Nightmare Before Christmas. The opening sequence bears an unfortunate similarity to the pre-titles in Coraline. (Didn't they know? Didn't anyone tell them?) The baby-doll-headed monster is like the strange doll-baby/spider made by the nasty neighbor boy in the first Toy Story.

The film treats you like you've never been to the rodeo before. And 9 wraps up its saga with a version of a plot gaff just used in Harry Potter and the Half Blood-Prince: one more detail in a real multidimensional disappointment.

Movie Times 9 (PG-13; 79 min.), directed by Shane Acker and written by Pamela Pettler and Acker, with the voices of Elijah Wood and Jennifer Connelly, opens Sept. 9.

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