In 2005, graduate student Shane Acker made a 10-minute animated short called “9,” which garnered him not only an Academy Award nomination, but also the attention of visionary director Tim Burton (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Sweeney Todd”) and “Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov. With their help as producers, Acker has brought a feature-length version of his post-apocalyptic, CGI fantasy adventure to the big screen, but with mixed, somewhat disappointing results.
“9” shows an incredibly bleak future where humans have been wiped out during a man vs. machine war, and the only inhabitants remaining of the now ravaged wasteland are a group of living burlap dolls as well as a cat-like robot hunting them. The dolls, termed “stitchpunks” by Acker, were the final creation of a famous scientist, who infused each of them with a personality and different character traits as his last act. In case you’re wondering — this movie is a little strange.
The stitchpunk 9 (named for the number on his back, and voiced by Elijah Wood) joins these survivors, but unintentionally sets off a series of events which put all of them in grave danger. After accidentally reactivating an old machine, which starts building an army of evil robots to find and them, 9 must persuade the raggedy scavengers to finally come out of hiding to help him fight and destroy the threat.
The original’s narrative is quite similar to the feature’s, except more basic. The short captivated the viewer with its creative animation, mysterious universe and unique look, and the general weirdness of it all only made it more intriguing. Acker expands upon the first version here, both visually and story wise.
However, where the first incarnation felt fresh and inspired, this plot feels derivative of countless other apocalypse society movies; think the cute and cuddly “Wall-E” meets gritty “Terminator: Salvation.” Like those two films, the visuals are a sight to behold, the action is exciting and machines are in control. But where they each had a compelling, multi-layered narrative, “9” is missing much of an original, or even that interesting of a tale to tell.
While “9” lacks in storytelling, Acker uses some very stylistically satisfying creatures, designs and thrills to compensate. Each of the stitchpunks has a distinguished, hand-crafted look, the expansive landscapes are exquisitely detailed and the many fight and chase sequences are in-your-face intense. The best touches, however, lie in the creepy robots in pursuit of the dolls. Most chilling of these is the “seamstress” beast — a spidery, snake-like monstrosity with the head of a dilapidated, almost mutant china doll. The spooky profile burns itself into the mind, a face not soon to be forgotten.
Scary images like this and some hearty helpings of bloodless, stylized violence earned “9” a PG-13 rating, only the third theatrically released computer-animated film to receive that distinction. Though its dark subject matter also fits with the rating, some sporadic moments of childishness make “9” feel like a kid’s movie here and there, particularly due to the brutish, dopey warrior 8 and child-like twins 3 and 4. These characters, the often eye-roll inducing, overly simplistic dialogue and formulaic, predictable writing hamper the quality and appeal of “9.” This leaves the film unsure of who it’s aimed at — not entirely mature enough for adults and teens nor light enough for young kids.
The voice actors seem misinformed about the movie’s seriousness, too. Wood and John C. Reilly (the one-eyed, good-hearted 5) both deliver their lines with too much innocence and youthful wonder, while Christopher Plummer (the intelligent, scheming leader 1) speaks too arrogantly and gruffly.
At only 79 minutes, “9” never loses your attention, always showcasing an imaginative feast for the eyes, albeit without ever incorporating any sort of emotional poignancy. If Acker had strengthened the thin plot line and added some much-needed depth to the shallow, stereotypical characters, the film could’ve been the animated hit of the season that people were expecting. Unfortunately, the astounding animated action and impressive creatures are all that make this movie really stand out.
Burton and Bekmambetov have found a new protégé to visually arrest audiences, but he still needs improvement to immerse them as well. Acker will definitely become one to look out for in the future, although he needs to figure out how to balance style with substance first. Until then, just look up the original short film on Youtube and wait to catch this one on DVD, because “9” isn’t worth your 10 dollars.
Two out of Four Stars