'9' is serious, 21st-century animation

If you appreciate the quantum leap CGI animation has made in the last five or so years, you will find the just released "9" breathtaking. Film history is being made right now and there's no turning back. Hand-drawn animation, while still vibrant in tone and color, is from a different century. "9" makes the point.

So if you're an aficionado, you will find the small, wonderfully imagined, burlap-covered characters in "9," called stitchpunks, endlessly fascinating. They actually look more like hybrid sock dolls, possessing large, camera-shutter eyes and nicely articulated metal hands and feet. They're wonderful. As is this unusual film.

The question that "9" begs, however, is this: For what audience?

Dark and intense, with machines that look like mechanical monsters and gluttonous pythons, it is set in a post-apocalyptic world absent all humans, populated only by small groups of humanoid stitchpunks; therefore, it may be too intense for younger audiences. Though the film initially has the look and feel of "Wall-E," it is far more serious, decidedly absent any comic relief.

That isn't to say the story of "9' is complex or inaccessible; it isn't. It's straightforward. Some might say the plot is thin.

The characters — led by 9 (Elijah Wood) and 7 (Jennifer Connelly) — are locked in a battle for survival, arguing with an older, though not necessarily wiser, 1 (Christopher Plummer) who counsels only retreat. If they are to prevail in this dark, sepia world, where the sky is always a grim gray, where wreckage from the prolonged war between humans and the machines is everywhere, they must defeat the final, tarantula-like mother machine, inadvertently awakened by 9, which is now intent on crushing their small bodies and stealing their souls.

Older audiences, who marvel at this state-of-the-art animation, will find "9" to be 88 minutes of true delight, proving once again that filmmakers will always find new and compelling realms for storytelling, searching out endless permutations, while riding a wave of creativity that never crests, set in motion so many decades ago by those incomparable Disney animators.


Had "Whiteout" been made in the '40s or early '50s, it would have been nicely slotted as a B movie and given second billing, right behind an A feature film.

During the period of double features, Hollywood invested in hundreds of B movies. Their cost was minimal compared to A-list films, and production time was truncated; many B movies, from preproduction to post-production, took no more than a few months to complete.

Gradually, B movies evolved into a separate genre, considered by some to be prurient (some might say seedy), starring unknown actors who were serving what might be considered a B apprenticeship. B movies, however, could surprise, displaying a high degree of aestheticism, energy and craftsmanship; some were uniquely stylized, shot in black and white, buoyed by inspired lighting, soon referred to as "film noir."

Traditionally, B movies were westerns, horror and science fiction. Later came those men in double-breasted suits and fedoras, packing heat, accessorized by slinky, heavy-lidded gun-molls in spaghetti-strap dresses with long cigarettes dangling from lush, dark lips.

So here's the essence of the argument: Contemporary films such as "Whiteout" should not be judged by A movie standards. This is a B movie, a basic thriller with few garnishes. A whodunit, really, that takes place in the most inhospitable place on earth, Antarctica, at an American scientific outpost where two geologists (they're looking for meteor samples) are killed and the perpetrator is on the loose (granted the film, in the set-up, suggests John Carpenter's "The Thing").

Kate Bekinsdale, a fine actress, portrays Carrie Stetko, a United States marshal, whose job it is to pursue the killer. Not atypical for a B flick, she is the only name actor, other than a surprisingly old Tom Skerrit (looking like Kris Kristophersen's doppelganger), of Top Gun fame, as the base doctor.

Is "Whiteout" a bit clunky? Check. Does it stretch credulity? Check. Are the flashbacks to Stetko's drug-bust shootout in Miami, two years before, only marginally relevant? Check. Should the movie have gone straight to DVD? No.

This is a big-screen, big storms mystery. "Whiteout" entertains, without pretensions or any claims to be anything other than a lean, low-budget (by today's standards) movie that runs 101 minutes and gets the job done. Remember, B movies inhabit a place apart. And like those of the '40s and '50s, these later versions have developed their own style and should be judged accordingly.

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