A doll who's No. 9 dares to ask why

The title figure of "9" awakens to a postapocalyptic world and is stalked by a vicious machine. "9" is Shane Acker's directing debut, visually imaginative but narratively impoverished.
The title figure of "9" awakens to a postapocalyptic world and is stalked by a vicious machine. "9" is Shane Acker's directing debut, visually imaginative but narratively impoverished.
Posted: September 09, 2009

The title figure of 9 is a rag doll stitched from burlap. In a cluttered attic he awakens and goes forth, alone, into a devastated city. It might be London after World War II, with bomb-scarred factories belching steam and creaking rust.

Is this 9-inch poppet with the identifying number 9 on his back the last toy on Earth? If so, he is a plaything without an owner in a world where the owners are no longer alive.

9's origins are unknown to him. But a vicious machine has his number and stalks 9 until the creature is saved by a member of his lovingly improvised species.

So begins Shane Acker's visually imaginative, though narratively impoverished, animation, rated PG-13 for its sequences of machines terrorizing the toys. With a run time of 79 minutes and a story that's stuffed with incident if not substance, 9 betrays its origins as an Oscar-nominated short padded to feature length.

Acker, whose gifts for mood, design, and character design are impressive enough to have attracted Tim Burton as a producer, is more of an artist than a storyteller.

What drives the plot of his film is that 9 (voice of Elijah Wood), alone of his kind, is curious about his origins. Rather than live in fear, 9 lives fearlessly. This agitates his fellow creatures, like the pontificating 1 (Christopher Plummer), who counsels isolationism. And it scares the timid 5 (John C. Reilly), a follower who doesn't know whom to follow.

Only 7 (Jennifer Connelly), a woman warrior, has 9's courage and curiosity. When 1 commands that the creatures should hide and not venture out to challenge the mechanical "Beast" who lies in wait, 9 insists they should not live in fear.

(Is there something to the fact that except for 2, voiced by Martin Landau, a tinkerer who dodders a bit, the odd numbers have more developed personalities than the even?)

Each of 9's fellow creatures is marvelously detailed out of distinctive fabrics and given distinguishing features by the creator. The mysterious identity of the creator and his fate is a more compelling tale by far than what devolves into a battle between rag doll and beast.

In 50 years, film lovers will look back on 9 as the debut feature of an original talent.


9 **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Shane Acker. Voices of Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, and Jennifer Connelly. Distributed by Focus Features.

Running time: 1 hour, 19 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (suspense, intense battle scenes between rag dolls and machinelike beasts.

Showing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/

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