It's often said of contemporary animated features—over-common and woefully anonymous as they are—that they're prepared with the adult in mind as well as the child. It is no big secret by this point that Pixar Animation Studios has bottled the key signifiers of this claim and hidden them away, but it's the other studios that seem to give it the hard sell. "Look, it's cartoons, but there's middlebrow potty humor and sly cultural touchstones!" says Dreamworks or whoever. "Fine," says America.
Shane Acker's handsome, inessential 9 is not prepared with the child or the adult in mind; it is constructed only to tell a melancholy science-fiction story in the medium that suits it best, and CG is most certainly that. It opens with a tiny burlap homunculus awaking to find his creator dead on the floor, then takes 9 (so named for the number inscribed on his back) out the front door and into the ruins of a human civilization decimated by ill-tempered machines; 9 gradually encounters his eight forebears, each one a rougher draft of himself. Save for this itty-bitty colony and the skeletal robo-coyote that antagonizes them, there is no one left; all carbon-based life is gone, prey to the robots' ruinous green gas. For these sackboys (or "Stitchpunks," as Acker calls them), it is less little big planet, more little scorched earth.
This middle ground between Wall-E and Skynet makes for an assured debut from Acker, who builds here on his Oscar-nominated 2005 short film of the same name and design. In a spirit surprisingly true to its 10-minute origins, 9 avoids spending more time than it has to on exposition or character, insisting instead on an even pace of post-apocalyptic thrills and chills punctuated by just the right quantity of backstory. We're whisked briskly from set piece to set piece, and the robotic antagonists evolve ever quicker after an error in judgment awakens the spidery mechanical behemoth behind man's speedy decline. There is peril and despair, both so reliably excised from typical animated fare that films like 9 are better for their simple presence.
The work of Acker's animation team matches the script's energy, and occasionally surpasses it in invention and skill. Brief glimpses of human life reveal a weak spot (once Pixar figured out that cartoony CG people look better than photo-real CG people, everyone else just gave up and started cribbing) but the Stitchpunks and their dusty world of devastation are rendered with more thought and wit than anything else this side of Up. More impressive still is Acker's knack for squeezing maximum effect out of 9's many action sequences, which combine horror and adventure in ways that should make the film a genuine hit with the teenage-boy crowd.
It's hard to see the audience extending too far in either direction from there. The bulk of the film radiates a hopelessness that will unsettle even the younger viewers who can withstand its frightening imagery, and its techno-political subtext—a human government shown in flashback appears fascist in word and deed—is tied perhaps too closely to the coherence of the narrative, at least where the kiddies are concerned.
Nor does 9 have anything much to do with the animated films occupying the adult end of the spectrum. These movies are very often self-consciously violent, explicit, or twisted, eager to prove that cartoons aren't just for kids and transparent as a result. Though its themes (of fear vs. action and of the nature of the human soul) are loftier than those of, say, the secret-agent guinea pig movie, 9 is in no regard directed at a specifically adult audience; there is no coarse language or behavior, and its heroes, though fallible, act honorably.
But in the end this admirable but tenuous attitude toward its audience will likely be 9's downfall. The primary family-oriented audience for animated films will likely stay away, and in many cases may be perfectly correct in doing so; the film's reputation will flourish in animation circles but falter with potential cult audiences for its lack of narrative significance or stylistic edge. It's a success as an entertainment, and certainly as a debut, but it doesn't distinguish itself as it aims to.