9 (Blu-ray)

Sure, it may scare the crap out of the young kids, but they have to grow up some time, right?

Our story begins when a small rag doll with the number “9” stenciled on his back achieves consciousness. He comes to in what appears to be laboratory, an apparently dead scientist lying on the ground. Confused, unable to speak, and desperate for answers, 9 ventures out into the world, a war-ravaged, post-apocalyptic wasteland. After some wandering, he runs into another rag doll, this one named 2, who is excited to see him. After some tinkering, 2 gives him Elijah Wood’s voice, but before we get any more exposition, a terrifying robot dog monster snatches 2 away, compelling 9 to go on a rescue mission. His adventure brings him into contact with other rag dolls and, piece by piece, the story grows clearer. Meanwhile, lots of dope robot fighting.

I apologize for the vague synopsis, but the less you know about 9 the better. I’m not going to guarantee that the story will blow your mind, but its uniqueness and simplicity, combined with the manner in which director Shane Acker gradually rolls out the plot, adds up to one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had with an animated film in some time.

Now I know this will sound heretical and may lead to some kind of revocation of film guy credibility, but I have to say: 9 was my favorite animated film of the year, and yes that includes Up. Which isn’t to say Pixar’s latest is anything less than terrific, but Shane Acker’s debut is just so damn cool and original, I was engrossed from the very beginning.

I completely bought into the world he created. The talented folks who helped render his imagination into reality deserve credit for forging unparalleled visuals. The burned-out, abandoned city — the results of a sprawling man vs. machine grudge match that ended in near-total death on both sides — manages to feel both claustrophobic and menacing. The giant killer robot that pops up and begins spawning hellish, little AI metal devils most definitely adds to the menace.

And that’s really the engine of the plot’s momentum — the rag dolls versus this huge machine, which seems intent on sucking out their little rag doll souls. Again, it’s a simple plot construct, but serves two purposes: 1) it keeps the film moving along at breezy pace, and 2) it allows for a series of killer action scenes.

What separates 9 from just about all other? The action. The stuff that transpires on-screen is exciting, well-staged, and consistently out-done by the subsequent big set-piece (perhaps some of that action acumen can be attributed to Timur Bekmambetov’s involvement as producer). If your kids can get past some of the scary robot visages, I guarantee they’ll be blown away by the high-octane imagination. Heck, I’ve seen every action movie ever created and I was white-knuckled with what Acker was showing me.

Finally, a (non-specific) word about the ending: it’s abstract, metaphysical, out-there, and may irritate some viewers with its open-endedness, but I like it a lot. The final moments fit perfectly with the world that had been assembled to that point — nice and weird.

So do yourself a favor and give 9 a spin on Blu-ray. Universal is one of the best high-def studios in the business and they’ve put together a sterling disc. The technical merits are money, starting with the ultra-sharp 1.85:1 1080p widescreen transfer, a visual orgy that offers an almost overwhelming amount of scope and detail. The world might be a charred nightmare, but there’s still plenty to look at and, when the big-time action hits, the transfer really pops. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is a loud, vigorous aural companion to the eyeball porn.

Extras: a picture-in-picture, in-movie experience featuring pre-vis comparisons, interviews, and on-set footage (Universal consistently supports this tech, one of my favorite next-gen bonuses), a Blu-exclusive studio tour with Acker, a full-scale making-of documentary, and featurettes on the visuals and the acting-through-animation process. A filmmakers’ commentary, deleted scenes, and the original short that inspired the film round out the offering.

Not Guilty, spunky little sack-man!


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