A few months ago I went up to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams, Massachusetts (Mass MOCA as it’s called). I love this museum, which always has some of the most nuanced and interesting contemporary artists exhibiting today, artists deeply influenced by movements such as deconstruction and postmodernism, yet who have often moved beyond those intellectual gestures to also create objects of formal beauty, electronic wonder, genuine feeling and humanity. This last visit, at the “Badlands” exhibit, there was an interesting diorama depicting scenes of desolation, with in the far distance, tiny human figures swallowed up by the destruction. The work was both serene and disturbing, dark shapes brightly lit from behind like a planetarium, yet suggestive of the massive pain and suffering of war.
Such is the feeling I get from Tim Burton’s recent post-apocalyptic cartoon, 9, directed by relative newcomer Shane Acker (and co-produced by Burton). The look of the film has the same Burtonesque exaggeration as his earlier work – movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas or Edward Scissorhands. Yet this film is at once more serious and more light – a kind of fairy tale of about human destruction and human spirit. It’s hard not to be both moved by this work and to find it deeply suggestive and artistic.
The movie starts in-medias-res – a technique that I sometimes find jarring, but works quite well here since when 9, a kind of sock puppet imbued with human life, wakes up, thrown into a world of destruction and danger, he has no idea how he’s come to be and what’s come before, and neither do we.
The movie is both an exploration of 9’s origins as well as, of course, a battle with an evil robot holding lord over the apocalyptic ruins, a nasty piece of spidery belching machinery that looks suspiciously similar to the round, indestructible iron baddie in The Incredibles. The artistic panorama here is a bit more finely nuanced than The Incredibles, though – not CGI but carefully arted backgrounds, hued in acid green, faded khaki, shades of black, and fiery red, reminiscent of a cross between the drawings in Coraline and World War I cinematography. The visual work in this film is truly incredible and had it not been a major motion picture, stills from this movie could have hung in Mass MOCA and been right at home.
What’s most enjoyable about the film, though, is the exploration of human character represented by the sock puppets. There are indeed nine of them, each with its own distinct character, and each, presumably, created in a significant order from 1 to 9: each one an incomplete attempt, it seems, to capture the human spirit necessary to defeat evil. Naturally, 9’s destiny is to have the necessary spunk and spirit to compel the others to rally to the task. But the other puppets each have their interesting significant place, as well – including 1, the leader who feels he must protect the others at all costs, 7, the courageous warrior, 6, the compulsive who secretly deduces the answers, and 5, the loyal friend. At a mere 1 hour and 20 minutes, it’s not an involved story or a convoluted plot, yet its very simplicity is what makes this a fine film.
As a somewhat scary bedtime story for kids, then, the film has an uplifting moral about loyalty, courage, and camaraderie that any parent would want their child to understand. There is a repeated gesture throughout the film where one of the sock puppet characters will put their arms around another – a gesture of intimacy, friendship, and humanity. Yet that gesture comes to mean so much more: a longed-for human connection that sustains us in even the darkest of times. For adults, the film may recycle the simplistic tropes of science-fiction cartoons: evil robots and mad scientists, assembling a movie from bits of cloth and string and borrowed movie scenes. But there’s no doubt that this fine movie isn’t also a moving portrait of the human spirit, and yes, a finely crafted work of art.