“They left us with nothing. Nothing. Why must we right their wrongs?”
In “Lost Cels”, we take an in-depth look at the animated films and TV shows that failed or have been somewhat forgotten by time in order to see if they deserve their less-than-stellar reputation.
This article does contain SPOILERS.
Director: Shane Acker
US Release Date: 9th September 2009
Budget: $30 million
Gross: $48.4 million
Can we just take a few moments to examine how utterly perfect the opening five minutes of 9 are? I have to cover a lot within the next 3,500 or so words – the original short film, the art style, Shane Acker, flaws being turned into positives, the power of sub-par dialogue, the Animation Age Ghetto – and a fair bit of it is rather sad, because 9 did not deserve to fail as completely and spectacularly as it did. So, how about we just take a few moments to look in detail at just how perfect 9’s opening is? Because it really is, just a masterclass in atmosphere and plate-setting.
It begins with the slow swelling of the score, as it takes over the film from the studio title cards. The tone is very serious, somber, dark, almost slightly gothic. Immediately, anybody who sat down expecting a light family animation is being told “you’ve come to the wrong movie”. Then we are shown, in relatively brief flashes, the construction of 9 himself. His design is wordlessly explained: “this is how the eyes work, this is how his hands work, this is where he keeps stuff.” It provides the logical explanations about the “stitchpunks”, as Shane Acker describes them, that certain audience members would want right off the bat, but in a non-distracting mood-setter that still leaves room for the mystery of the nature of their existence later on.
“We had such potential.” Cue opening monologue, a simple yet brilliant one at that, where the central thematic conflict and dichotomy is set up, the push-pull between cynicism and optimism about life and, by extension, the human race. It’s a monologue that is very much regretful, saddened by the outcome of our technological greed – which is very much a red herring – yet still somewhat hopeful, with that defiant “life must go on” swinging the outcome decidedly in optimism’s favour. Then we get our title card, the music swells to a climax, and… silence.
Thus we witness the birth of 9, gaining consciousness after crashing to the desk from the decrepit contraption that helped spawn him. Time has passed, although precisely how much is left ambiguous and that’s important. We are thrown into this world in the exact same way that 9 is. So we see his curiosity and minor joy in discovering how he works, his initial difficulty with walking, and our first introduction to the MacGuffin that will drive most of the film, although neither he nor we recognise or understand so yet. Then, after this restrained joy and wonderment, 9 peers over the edge of the desk to find a dead body and the mood now shifts. 9 has now registered fear, he is now wary, and the camera and scale shift momentarily to put us in that kind of headspace. This room is worryingly quiet, this room is worryingly dark, 9 is worryingly small, and this place is not safe.
And that’s before 9 pushes open the windows and we all get our first glimpse at just how much the Earth has gone to hell in a handbasket. The camera pulls back; slowly at first, and then much faster before stopping when 9 is just a tiny speck in the centre of the frame that one can’t even notice unless they’re actively hunting. It’s the architecture here that grabs the eye, the bombed-out cityscape of a world that is eerily reminiscent of wartime 1940s, and particularly The Blitz. The sound design emphasises the lonely gusts of wind, what metal we can see is rusted beyond all repair. This is now practically a ghost town, one torn apart presumably in a manner much like those of hundreds of others in World War II.
Then 9 notices movement down below. He tries to call out, but he can’t be heard for he is unable to speak. The realisation seems to briefly upset him, but now he is determined to find the thing moving about below, despite the potential danger. Already, in just two minutes of screen-time, we have learned a lot about 9’s personality and not only has he not said a single word, but he’s also barely done anything or performed any giant gesture. Adding to that, we’ve also learned about the value of certain objects purely by how the camera is positioned and what it lingers on. And the world, too. Purely by design, by camera work, by the tiniest glimpses of the horrors that came before – like the body of a mother cradling her child in a destroyed car – and incidental artwork – such as a flyer featuring machines and a giant “REVOLT!” or insignias that are incredibly reminiscent of those used by Nazi Germany – we are given so much detail in such little time but without it feeling like force-fed exposition.
That’s all just in the first five minutes. The next five are almost as good – 9’s lethal curiosity being set-up by his interactions with the bullet, the pure joy on his face when he can start talking, 2’s design and warm Martin Landau-voice telling you everything you need to know about him, the rightfully menacing introduction of The Cat Beast and how 9 only escapes through 2’s (seeming) self-sacrifice – and, in fairness, all of the film’s minutes have to be that good and that concise at delivering information, atmosphere, and working without coming across as blunt and exposition-y. 9, after all, is only 72 minutes plus credits. It doesn’t exactly have time to waste. But that shouldn’t, and really doesn’t, take away from just how expert those opening five minutes are. If every film was this good at their openings, then we’d probably have a better class of film overall since it is incredibly hard to screw up an opening that good.
But I am getting ahead of myself, and on the subject of openings, let’s go back to the origins of 9 overall. Shane Acker began his career at ULCA with a Masters in Architecture in 1999, supposedly because he didn’t think that he could make a career out of animation, before turning to animation and spending four years at ULCA’s Animation Workshop. Whilst there, he created three short films. The first, created for Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation, was a 2000 traditionally-animated piece called The Hangnail, a silly little gross-out piece that looks and feels very John Kricfalusi. The second was a 2003 computer-animated thing called The Astounding Talent of Mr. Grenade that’s entertaining but, because of its 40 second runtime and one-simple-joke set-up, feels more like a testing of the new medium more than anything.
The third, released in 2005 after four and a half years of on-and-off work, was 9. In it, a stitchpunk with the number 9 emblazed on its back attempts to get revenge on a cat-like robot beast that killed its friend and mentor, 5, in search of a glowing talisman and is now pursuing 9 relentlessly for it. Most of the elements that would make up the feature film can be found here – the dark fantasy atmosphere, the ruined Earth setting (although the specific war-torn 1940s-nature of the world isn’t as present), the character designs, the soul-sucking mechanic – but they’re used in the context of a much smaller and contained film, as is befitting a student piece.
9 ended up a massive success, winning the Gold Medal in Animation at the 2005 Student Academy Awards, being nominated for the Best Animated Short Oscar at the 78th Academy Awards (although it lost to The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation), but most importantly it caught the eye of one Tim Burton. Burton’s works had been an influence on the short, so his shepherding the transformation of the story into a feature doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Burton worked more as “a Godfather” to the project than anything majorly hands-on, a kind of mentor that Acker could bounce ideas off of. Meanwhile, the film’s screenwriter, Pamela Pettler, had worked with Burton on the scripts of Corpse Bride and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, so there’s definitely this remove from The Burton Brand, as it were. His name was plastered all over the posters and yet, besides being a dark fantasy and the occasional motif, Burton’s presence isn’t much felt. This is definitely Shane Acker’s movie – perhaps due to him struggling to remain overseer and not micromanaging every little thing.
On that note, the visual style of 9 – both the short and the feature. Even if you haven’t actually heard of or watched the films in question but have seen clips and/or images, you can almost definitely recognise them as those of 9. The exact look is rather hard to describe, drawing as it does from stop-motion, the aforementioned mid-war 1940s Europe, and architecture in general for the sharp pointed feel of the world, but the result is absolutely stunning to look at. In fact, Acker had wanted to make the original short in stop-motion until he found it that it would be too expensive, although the tenants of European stop-motion would make their way into the film’s character animations. The end result comes from a combination of CG, matte paintings, and a live-action approach to camerawork, placement, and lighting.
And it. Is. GORGEOUS. From the initial reveal of the world, to the constant little reminders of just how small our cast are, to the little period specific details in things like the projector footage, to the individual seams in the cloth. There’s a life to this world, even though there is no life in it. The effort put into it is tangible and the little incidental details keep the world from feeling like a dollhouse or a toy box. Character animations are a fair bit stiffer than usual, but not overly so and therefore in a way that makes sense in-universe. …I can’t really think up the words, to be honest. It’s just utterly sensational to look at and makes the film worth watching for the visuals alone.
Plus, the sheer quality of those visuals makes 9’s more atmospheric and often horror intentions work gangbusters. This is, quite simply, one unnerving film. A work that makes you fear every extended silence or passage of time alone. It’s not even trying to make you jump out of your skin or invade your nightmares either – well, with the exception of The Seamstress, which is disturbing on a level that most real horror films won’t ever reach – it just wants you to understand the gravity of the situation. It wants you to understand that these stitchpunks are incredibly vulnerable, that these machines are absolutely ruthless and efficient, and that humanity was completely wiped out by them, and so it creates this unflinching and oppressive atmosphere as a result.
That’s why 9’s hiding from The Cat Beast is so nerve-wracking. That’s why every single forcible soul-draining is so utterly horrifying. That’s why when The Fabrication Machine rears its head through the black smoke with its piercing make-shift red eyes zeroed right in on 5 whilst “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” rings out its last notes, the reaction is fear on multiple levels instead of unintentional laughter – because, yes, out-of-context that sounds like some of the most on-the-nose ridiculous soundtrack dissonance one would experience in ages. If the film wasn’t committed to this serious tone, this dark atmosphere, and undercut it with massive jokes – which it only really does once – then this would all fall apart. One really has to admire Acker, and also Pettler, for sticking so much to his guns, here, and going for that PG-13 older audience totally, instead of trying to water the film down in any way.
You may notice that I’ve yet to talk about the film in ways that don’t amount to its atmosphere, animation quality, visual narrative chops… basically, in non-visual ways. Well, there’s a reason for that. As much as I like 9, and I do really like 9, things don’t hold together so well once the characters start talking. Voice performances are iffy across the board – going from the highs of John C. Reilly’s sincere heartfelt nervousness, to the lows of a very phoned-in Jennifer Connelly, to the awkward middle ground of Elijah Wood only sometimes being on-point – but that’s not so much the problem. The problem is that the dialogue itself is, well, kinda not good. Characters rarely swap natural dialogue, where we learn facts and personality traits about them without it coming off as clunky exposition and set-up, and that ends up betraying the non-artificial feel of the world.
Yet, in a way, it makes some sense. The stitchpunks are all individual parts of The Scientist’s soul, so their blunt one-dimensional personalities and worldviews are justifiable. They are each just one-dimension of three-dimensional person – 9 the hopeful and curious side, 8 is the dumb order-following side, 1 is the resentful side who cares more about survival than fixing anything, and so on and so forth – so it’s near-impossible for them to grow and change or communicate in any natural way, because natural interactions can really only come from multi-dimensional beings, which the stitchpunks aren’t. That, therefore, makes 1’s breakthrough at the end, when he sacrifices himself in the name of hope and converts to the side of optimism over cynicism, all the more surprising since, in theory, he should be incapable of such growth.
But of course, though, one-dimensional characters and awkward tin-eared dialogue are still both of those things even if they are given an excuse of some level. It’s kind of a shame because the central set-up of the film gives a tonne of room to work with, specifically the corrupting influence of fear. How fear is what keeps the majority of the stitchpunks from trying to do anything other than survive, how it splits the group, and how fear and resentment caused by the evils of Man corrupted The Fabricator rather than technology just being evil. Almost likely a result of the constrained runtime – again, this is a 72 minute movie when you strip out the credits – the dialogue needed to be less hammerfist-to-the-face. It ends up causing this otherwise adult movie to be inadvertently dragged back to down a kind of family level film, with that kind of obvious pandering “explain it all” dialogue.
So, then. Why did 9 fail at the box office? I mean, despite the incredibly on-the-nose dialogue, the film is still great and is definitely unlike much else in the feature animation medium so should have been easily sellable. Why did it very barely make its budget back, and even then in such a way that it won’t have actually made a profit? Well, allow me to introduce some of you to the concepts of “The Animation Age Ghetto” and “All Adult Animation Is South Park”. (Side Bar: I know that it’s rather tacky to reference tropes and especially TV Tropes in criticism like this, but it saves time in getting everybody up to speed, so just go with it.) “The Animation Age Ghetto” refers to the common belief held by many members of the public that all animation is for kids, regardless of content or intended age group, whilst “All Adult Animation Is South Park” comes from another seemingly common belief that the only way to break out of that Ghetto is to be as disturbing, violent, gross, offensive, and blatantly “adult” as possible, although it typically comes off as “teenage boy” instead of “adult”.
It’s hard for an animation to break out of the Ghetto in the mainstream public consciousness. On the Internet, of course, this isn’t a problem since we denizens treat most all animation on some equal level instead of dismissing the whole medium as “for kids”, but the general public are somewhat harder to sway – possibly best encapsulated by a Metro review of Studio Ghibli’s Tales From Earthsea referring to how children would respond to a film decidedly not made for children. So then you get two problems. The first is that, no matter what you do, you are going to get parents who will take their kids to see the movie in question even though they clearly shouldn’t, leading to bad press amongst families who will deride the film once they get out for being too scary or what have you. The second is that you’re then trying to sell a film to an age-range that’s likely to dismiss your film as “kiddie” out of hand; they need winning over. So, how do you do that?
If you’re 9, the answer is apparently that you slap Tim Burton’s name over everything and set your trailer to goddamn Coheed & Cambria.
Now, look, I do like “Welcome Home”, but when you utilise it in this context, over a trailer that’s already cut and designed in a way that comes off like an amateur AMV and which alters the film’s subtly dark and imposing atmosphere to “teenage Linkin Park fan desperately trying to be taken seriously” heights of self-parody, it becomes a step too far. I honestly wouldn’t be amazed if it hadn’t turned more people off than it managed to ensnare. Meanwhile, Tim Burton has a certain brand, especially in the realm of animation, and 9, as mentioned earlier, is decidedly off-brand. But even still, those who see his name will recall his involvement in The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach and Corpse Bride and expect a family film instead of the rather adult result. After all, although those films are a bit macabre and darker than your average animation, they’re still fun little family adventures.
(Also, and I can’t corroborate this, but I have heard stories here and there of adverts for the film popping up on places like Cartoon Network, which doesn’t really help the film’s case much if true.)
So even with the PG-13 rating – only the fourth animated film in American film history to receive that rating, after Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (a film we will come to at some point down the road), Kaena: The Prophecy (a film we will definitely be looking at in the near-ish future), and Beowulf (technically, sort of) – 9 looked unlikely to avoid falling into the Ghetto. Arguably its only real hope was for some strong reviews to turn people who otherwise wouldn’t care, or whose interest had been piqued but not enough to see it immediately, onto it. Those… didn’t really come. The film wasn’t exactly slated, but most critics had the same reaction as I: amazing animation and atmosphere, shame about the dialogue, although they were more bothered by the dialogue than I ended up being.
Therefore, with all of those factors working against it, it basically failed right out of the gates. Box office analysists like to claim that its second place opening on 1,600 screens with $10 million is passable – such a modest number of screens is not that surprising since the film’s distributor was Focus Features – due to it being higher than, say, The Iron Giant, but $10 million on a weekend with only a Tyler Perry movie for competition, and being a film that would just haemorrhage money each week anyway, is not passable. A film like 9 needed a strong start, a big first weekend audience to help carry it against the next week’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and it didn’t get one, hence why it dropped out after three weeks. The audience just didn’t like the look of the movie, and its 50% drops each weekend indicated that most audiences didn’t like the finished product either.
With all of that, then, one might expect this story to have some kind of sad ending. After all, films that are this middlingly received by critics and fail so totally at the box office typically end with quiet disappearances into the aether for everyone involved. Rather happily, that doesn’t appear to be the case. For one, 9 is (supposedly, I can never quite find these things out for certain on the Internet) slowly gaining the cult following that it deserves, as major animation fans on the Internet latch onto it for its outstanding animation, character designs, and atmosphere. After all, what better place for unique, daring animated films with a singular creative vision to find the long-overdue praise and respect that they deserve than the Internet? A film like 9 was never going to fall into total obscurity, but it is heartening to see it blossoming a proper creative fandom.
More importantly, Shane Acker’s future is still looking somewhat bright. After several years of working as a Pre-Vis Artist on a bunch of films of questionable quality, in 2012 and 2013, he signed on to direct two separate animated features: Deep, an undersea-set post-apocalypse adventure that supposedly has the involvement of legendary videogame developers and storefront merchants Valve, and Beasts of Burden, an adaptation of the Dark Horse Comics series of the same name with up and coming animation studio Reel FX (of Free Birds and the underrated The Book of Life fame). Nothing much has been heard of either film since then, but that’s animation production times for you.
Plus, and this is what makes me really hopeful, both of these are stories that sound decidedly dark and properly adult. 9 was a tough sell for people because its stitchpunks were honestly rather adorable, which adds to the misconception that it’s still a children’s movie. But, of course, 9 is a rather adult movie, with genuine menace and atmosphere and a legitimate back-and-forth on cynicism and optimism. It’s different, purely by committing to its aim of being an animated feature for an older target audience, and that’s refreshing in an animated feature landscape that’s still – arguably justifiably – reticent to move away from purely targeting families. The mere fact that a film like Deep has the premise that it does gives me hope that Acker is continuing to pursue his vision of darker and alternative feature animations, and that excites me.
Hopefully next time the dialogue will back up his thematic and artistic visions.
Next time: Delgo.