“9” is a bizarre animation film from Tim Burton. It’s not bad, but it exhibits two fatal flaws that short0circuit the story and weaken the movie. By identifying these two flaws, you can avoid them in your own screenplays.
The movie “9” came out with a unique marketing campaign, being released on September 9, 2009 so the release date was 9/9/09. Despite its interesting visual effects, the film itself is ultimately unsatisfying because of two primary deficiencies: lack of the hero’s motivation and lots of unanswered questions.
First, there’s the lack of the hero’s motivation. In a film like “Star Wars,” it’s easy to see what motivates Luke. First, he feels stuck on his uncle’s farm and tries to stay loyal to his uncle. However, when the stormtroopers kill his aunt and uncle, Luke has no choice but to go with Obiwan-Kanobi. Seeing your home burnt to the ground is pretty strong motivation to react.
In “Ratatouille,” it’s also clear what motivates Remy the rat. He enjoys good food and does whatever he can to get it. His quest for the old lady’s cookbook is partially what triggers Remy’s journey into Paris.
In “9”, the hero’s motivation is murky at best and non-existent at worse. The hero, 9, is a canvas doll that’s essentially alive through mechanical means and the spirit of the scientist who created him. Initially, he finds himself awake and has no idea where he is or what’s going on as the house he wakes up in is abandoned. Peeking out the window, he sees a wrecked world.
Right now his motivation is more curiosity, which matches the audience’s own curiosity. Suddenly, he hears a noise and grabs a weapon. Then he clunks a similar doll over the head, named 2, who says that he’s a friend. This 2 doll briefly befriends the hero until a mechanical beast shows up, hauls 2 away in its jaws, and leaves the hero, 9, scared and unsure of what’s going on.
When some other dolls find 9, they briefly explain what happened in the world, but the hero’s immediate motivation is to rescue 2. Huh?
The hero barely met this other doll and suddenly his motivation is to risk his own life in an unknown world to save somebody he barely knew? It’s easy to understand why a parent would risk their lives to save their drowning son or daughter in the ocean, but would that same person risk their life to save a complete stranger? Maybe, but only if we knew what kind of person that character might be.
Because “9” starts off with a murky motivation for the hero, it’s hard to sympathize with the hero. We like the hero, but we don’t feel any bond of sympathy with the hero. The hero is simply an interesting character, not someone we want to root for.
The hero’s motivation throughout the movie is questionable. We don’t know why the hero is doing anything other than to advance the plot. In “Star Wars,” it’s easy to see that Luke is fascinated by the hologram of Princess Leia, so when he discovers that she’s trapped on the Death Star, it makes sense that he would want to rescue her.
In “9”, the hero has no similar bond with the other dolls, which makes the hero’s motivation to rescue the other doll seem strange and ultimately pointless. We root for heroes we like. However, nobody roots for a hero they don’t like or understand. That’s why fans cheer their home team rather than the opposing team because they have a reason to cheer for the home team. Nobody has a reason to cheer for the opposing team.
The lack of clear motivation for the hero sinks “9” right away. The second fatal flaw are the unanswered questions that the story poses.
Any good story intrigues your curiosity with plenty of unanswered questions, but then gradually answers them along the way. In “9”, we get hit with answered questions and we never find the answer. For example, why is the 1 doll, the oldest doll and the leader, so fearful of the evil machine that helped wipe out the human race? In the beginning, 1 leads a group of surviving dolls to safety, but runs the colony like a dictator using a muscular doll named 8 to enforce his draconian rules.
So far, so good, but why? We never learn what’s motivating 1 or what he’s trying to hide from 9.
The Scientist who created these dolls is also responsible for creating the evil killing machine that wiped out the human race. Yet inexplicable, he leaves the key to this evil machine in his home where 9 can find it and plug it into the evil machine by mistake, bringing it back to life again.
If this machine is so evil, why leave the one object that can bring it back to life? Also, how did this evil killing machine get disabled in the first place? What is the Scientist trying to accomplish by creating nine separate dolls infused with his spirit?
There’s a female doll named 7, who has left the draconian colony set up by 1 and fights on her own. The big question is why? What does 7 want?
With so many unanswered questions, characters seem to appear solely to advance the plot, rather than define and control the plot. By the end of the movie, we’re left with these unanswered questions because the writer never bothered to answer them or make them an integral part of the story. As a result, “9” is a visually stunning film, but weak as a story.
The box office reflects this problem because “9” only made a small profit and plummeted from the top ten movies when it was first released.
When writing your own screenplays, make sure your hero’s motivation is clear and make sure you use unanswered questions to entice and attract your audience. But also make sure you answer these unanswered questions eventually or else you’ll risk a story that satisfies no one.