Empty characters can’t save disappointing ‘9’

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    The little rag doll at the focus of the new animated film “9” had come a long way before hitting theaters this month. The film was originally an Academy Award-nominated short film before help from producers Tim Burton and last summer’s blockbuster “Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov lent their star power to it.

    “9” is the second animated film from Focus Features after this year’s “Coraline.” Both films are not your average Disney-Pixar movie fare, containing dark themes that would probably frighten or at least creep out some children.

    Like “Coraline,” this film has all the hallmarks of Burton’s style. There’s a unlikely hero who’s looking for his identity (in this case literally) and his place in the world.

    The world in question is in ruins after a self-aware machine brings about a mechanical revolution that has wiped out virtually all humankind. The numbered dolls are not flesh and bone, but rather have the soul of their scientist inventor. The plot almost sounds a little like the beginning of “Edward Scissorhands” with the greying scientist standing in for Vincent Price’s dying inventor.

    Their sole shred of personalities are their voices provided by such actors as Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly and Elijah Wood in the role of the titular character.

    Unfortunately, all of them are underutilized. Their roles amount to what feels like a bunch of bit roles. The world that they inhabit definitely takes center stage and that’s where the film shines.

    The action sequences are entertaining and the film doesn’t cater to the idea of the traditional Hollywood happy ending, but the characters’ presence falls flat.

    The character of 9 is particularly troubling in that he’s neither charasmatic enough to lead nor does he have a personality that makes him likeable. From beginning to end, it feels like he’s still an empty vessel.

    Despite the influence of its producer, the film retained its original director Shane Acker who brought his own share of ideas. Unfortunately, those ideas are spent mostly on atmosphere and mood and little is left for character development.

    In the end, the film rings a little hollow and its performances need a little injection of some soul, not unlike the little rag dolls themselves.

    “9” is rated PG-13 and is in theaters now.