The release of Shane Acker’s 9, an expansion of his compelling Academy Award-nominated short of the same name, adds another to 2009’s slate of intelligent, distinctive animated features. Coraline, Up, 9.99, and Ponyo all represent antidotes to increasingly homogenized studio animation via a blend of unique, considered visual styles and depth of storytelling ability. 9's no slouch in either of these regards. (If Fantastic Mr. Fox turns out well, this might be remembered as a watershed year.) An apocalyptic steampunk vision in which a ragged band of miniature sock puppet figures risk their lives to defeat the remnants of evil machinery left behind post-cataclysm while simultaneously questioning the miracle of their own existences, 9 feels a bit like Terminator Salvation reconceived by folks with imagination.
UPDATE: Read Tyson Kubota's review of 9 at Reverse Shot.
For most of the past decade, as the death knell has sounded repeatedly for American studio-produced hand-drawn animation, a new set of clichés have come into being for—mostly computer-animated—family movies. Instead of the princesses, musical numbers, and talking animal sidekicks of Little Mermaid–era Disney, these CG beasts feature obnoxious, winking references to mass culture and are littered with several-years-expired pop songs.
In place of the clean lines and fluid, expressive character movement of the best cel animation, almost all recent non-Pixar animated movies have tended toward the cut-rate dreck of Space Chimps or Madagascar or the death mask–like motion capture of Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf, with their characters’ uncanny, yet disturbingly robotic, resemblance to humans. Featuring off-the-shelf character models and recycled textures, these made-by-machine movies have been anathema to the expressive tendencies of animation's past. Here, American animation's historical attention (at least, pre-Hanna Barbera) to quality draftsmanship has been largely supplanted by animals with flatly shaded spheres for eyes and blindingly white-toothed, creepily anthropomorphic grins (watch any of the Dreamworks movies or click here): the indifference of the visual rendering is a cold acknowledgement of the commercial necessities of movies targeted at children.
As a PG-13 rated film with an auteurist stamp and immersive, detailed images, 9 seemed to hold some promise as a corrective to this glut of animated product; instead, its rote, repetitive structure and execution defeat its more mature thematic and aesthetic aspirations. : Read the rest.