9 has everything going for it. By all accounts, it should be a great, captivating film. Somehow it just doesn't add up. It's not even the sum of its parts, because even the elements that should be cool on their own end up falling short.
The best part of the movie is the beginning, when a silent rag doll wakes up and explores his surroundings. This is the only part that cultivates any mystery or wonder. It already starts going downhill when 9 (Elijah Wood) gets a voice box and a name (well, a number that's his name), because it's like, "Oh, now you're just going to explain stuff to us instead of showing it."
9 meets 7 (Jennifer Connelly) and other numbers, 1 through 8. Mechanical beasts threaten the little creatures, but when one is taken, the authority 1 (Christopher Plummer) orders everyone to stay put. 9 wants to venture forth into the apocalyptic landscape to save his brother, because every life is precious and there could be wonderful things to discover out there.
The apocalyptic landscape itself is unique. This isn't the I Am Legend overgrown grass city or the more typical Road Warrior desert wasteland. The idea of the steampunk apocalypse, where industrial-revolution technology advanced and then crumbled, looks different but doesn't offer anything. The rubble is there only to serve action scenes, and machines exist only because the characters need some conveyor belts to run through. When you don't buy that this world existed for an actual purpose, there are no stakes in the action.
The story is the very average Disney model of one rebel defying his pack and proving he was actually more mature and worldly all along. Fine, but if that journey's not as compelling as The Lion King or Finding Nemo, you're screwed. It turns out that the message "There's hope for humanity after all" isn't enough to propel even 70 minutes of story. You had us at "Humanity gave way to rag doll creatures." Trying to restore things to even a semblance of the way they were seems counterproductive.
The characters are more compelling when they don't talk. When they speak, they just give monosyllabic explanations for why things are the way they are, why they want or don't want things to change, and basically whatever exposition needs to happen. It's better left open to interpretation. At least you can imagine something profound on your own.
The characters and animation look unique. The world looks unique. The story is conceptually unique, if not in execution. It just doesn't add up to anything—or, rather, at no point are the unique elements successful in surpassing their more traditional counterparts. I don't want to be a total sourpuss, though, so good effort, nice try.