Turn on, toon in, drop out

Directed by Shane Acker
Opens Wednesday, Sept. 9th
* out of

Directed by Henry Sellick
Released on DVD on July 21st
* ½ out of **

Since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney has been comfortably at the forefront of the animated film business. The latest challenger for their title might be Focus Features (a sub-division of Universal Pictures), who decided to release not one, but two, animated films in 2009.

The latest, 9, is a post-apocalyptic tale that recalls Britain following the Second World War in setting and British science fiction novels of that era in sensibility. Based on a 2005 Academy Award-nominated animated short film of the same name (which I haven’t seen), Shane Acker’s 9 follows a series of “stitchpunks” (don’t ask) who are the only living representation of humans following their extermination at the hand of the “Great Machine.” Newsreel footage depicts the creation of an indestructible fighting machine originally created in an attempt to gain world domination over the nation’s enemies. Predictably, the artificial intelligence quickly outsmarts the humans and, predictably again, the machines turn evil and decide to eliminate humanity altogether.

As a way of retaliating, an old scientist (Alan Oppenheimer) has fabricated the “stitchpunks” to fight back against the remaining machines who roam the streets. The No. 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) is a Christ-like figure who starts living just moments after the death of his creator. No. 9 might be the youngest stitchpunk, but he’s also the most knowledgeable. He integrates the stitchpunk group, including leader No. 1 (Christopher Plummer), frail No. 2 (Martin Landau), sensitive No. 5 (a distracting John C. Reilly) and rebellious No. 7 (Jennifer Connoly), eventually persuading them to fight back against the machines.

Not only is 9 dated, but it suffers a great deal from its erratic pacing. Clocking in at a mere 79 minutes, 9 doesn’t give itself time to develop its characters and their surroundings. The first action sequence takes place within the first four minutes of the film and, from then on, the film is basically a chase movie going from point A to point B. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, but there is little connection with the characters, which should be pivotal in a film about survival.

9 fares even worse when compared with Focus Features’ first animated effort of 2009, Coraline, which was recently released on DVD. Whereas 9 is a futuristic fable about humanity’s seduction via greed, Coraline is a timeless fable about humanity’s seduction via the heart.

In the latter, a lonely little girl moves into an apartment house in Oregon. However, Coraline (Dakota Fanning) finds life there quite boorish, as both her mother (Teri Hatcher) and father (John Hodgman) are writers who have no time for her. One day Coraline finds a miniature door in their living room, which turns out to be a portal to an alternate reality where fun is just around every corner and, even more importantly, her other parents pay attention to her. After a succession of nights venturing off between realities, Coraline eventually realizes (spoiler alert!) that it’s a trap and that her other parents are only pretending to be kind in order to eat her. It is, essentially, a daydream which evolves into a nightmare.

Coraline is frequently vibrant, and its animation is equally dazzling, especially in the scenes where Coraline meets her alternative neighbors. I admired how the film’s designs shifted dramatically from majestic to sinister, to emphasize the disconnect between worlds. However, what really makes Coraline so refreshing is that it knows the psychology of its child protagonist, and it knows that in order to be scary, the film has to be cold, creepy and cruel. It’s so effective that it makes me wonder if director Henry Sellick might have been a bigger factor in The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ success than the usually-mistakenly-credited Tim Burton. The only real let down in Coraline is that the film’s final act is comparably simple and somewhat contrived.

Quintessentially both films, 9 and Caroline, deal with the faltering of utopias and the quest to return them to their original state. One does this poorly, the other does it effectively. So far Focus Features is literally hit-and-miss, and, as such, Disney shouldn’t have to worry about conceding its crown anytime soon.