Five years after director Shane Acker won an Oscar for his animated short film 9, the director is back helming a feature-length expansion of his own premise about a group of rag dolls in a post-apocalyptic setting.
The short film is a delightful slice of animation -- dialogue-free, inventive, stylized and fun. As it turns out, some things are better left alone. With all of its visual and technical innovation and intrigue to burn, 9 is nevertheless a bland, repetitive and hackneyed inflation of the eleven-minute short film with as many bad ideas as good ones, until the source material is proven overexposed.
Trying to duplicate the moderate success of Coraline ($75 million domestic gross), Focus Features has an odd blend of genres rolled into a niche package. The PG-13 science-fiction action-adventure animated film is too dark, bleak and humorless for anyone under the age of twelve, yet too undemanding, unpolished and meandering for anyone old enough to carry a driver’s permit.
Beginning with an aged, painful voiceover narration, 9 begins brilliantly with the awakening of its title character (Elijah Wood) in the workshop of a now deceased scientist. After flipping open the tapping, wind-battered shutters, we’re exposed to a hazy, smog-ridden ruin of what used to be a great city – think 1940’s London crossed with Soylent Green. 9 soon meets a resourceful old “sackboy” like himself, named 2 (Martin Landau), who is quickly snatched up during an attack by a roving machine known simply as, “The Beast”.
Wounded from the attack, 9 awakens under the hospitality of 5 (John C. Reilly) and a band of fellow “stitchpunks” (courtesy of Mr. Acker) led by #1 (Christopher Plumber) who, it appears, have been seeking refuge and solitude from “The Beast” for quite some time. Through various plot devices and tactics, we come to learn that the human race has become extinct at the expense of their own ambition. Through newspaper clippings, a scientist is identified as to have built an army of intelligent machines for this nameless “State”, who then became self-aware, turning on their creators with unremitting numbers and hostility. This war is depicted briefly during the origin story of the numbered “stitchpunks”, much to the delight of this reviewer.
Unfortunately, 9 can’t sustain its opening passages, nor can it duplicate (not to mention expand on) the wondrous and artistically rendered eleven-minute short film upon which it’s based. It’s quite obvious that Shane Acker and screenwriter Pamela Pettler (Corpse Bride, Monster House) are spreading this premise thin to the point of tedium. It boils down to a series of capture-and-escape, machine-versus-rag doll monster battles spliced with a MacGuffin/post-apocalyptic, “save the world” narrative – a short film on repeat.
Dialogue, all too prevalent here, is a barrage of banal moralistic debates perfectly fitting our archetypical, straight-laced, pint-sized heroes. The voicework by everyone involved is non-essential with the exception of keeping Elijah Wood busy these days. John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly and Christopher Plummer, among others, are given no range here to make an impression, simply a vehicle for the action like everything else. The kind of exacting, strength-building inspiration for the characters and their voiceover counterparts, noticeable in any feature made by Pixar, is plainly absent here.
If there is one thing worth chewing on in 9, it is the animation, a kind of stop-motion/computer-generated hybrid. Interiors are appropriately dark and faintly lit with exterior sequences, which expose the pinkish-yellow beauty of the sky, looking gorgeous. The character design and the imagination involved with the detailing of the environment and the set pieces are undeniably impressive. For instance, the numbers on a calendar serve as a scorecard for which “stitchpunks” are still alive and a saltshaker’s silver top is efficiently used as a jousting mask.
Regrettably, only in this aspect does anything about 9 signal any stroke of inventiveness. In fact, nothing in the film is definably awful, but what you have here is a harmlessly dull and dreary piece of action-animation -- stubbornly visceral and tirelessly unprogressive.