What do you expect out of an animated film? Great ideas? Great stories? Quirky characters? Family entertainment? Wholesome messages for the toddlers of today? Wonderful aesthetics? Or a bit of everything? Best to think about this up front, because it will seriously effect your potential enjoyment of 9, the debut feature film from director Shane Acker.
Adapted from his genuinely brilliant Oscar-nominated animated short of the same name, 9 is a film bursting with visual ideas, but completely lacking in the narrative department. Central to the story are little rag-doll creations called stitchpunks, who roam a ruined, post-apocalyptic wasteland brought about by a major war between man and machine.
Over an opening narration, we are introduced to the world, where the ‘blind pursuit of technology’ cooked up man’s downfall. All that is left are the stitchpunks – cute marriages of thread, cloth and metal who speak with the voices of Elijah Wood and Jennifer Connelly – and the Monster, a cat-like machine of bone and cogs.
The film follows the story of #9 (Wood), the youngest of the stitchpunks, who wakes in the workshop of a deceased scientist, and ventures out in the wide world. Along the way, he meets others like him, such as the kindly tinkerer #2 (Martin Landau), and the dopey, big-hearted #5 (John C. Reilly). When it comes to raw visuals and atmosphere through animation and design, Acker creates some wonderful, stunning and chilling work.
The beguiling context conjures up a myriad of influences, from H.G. Wells’ classicist machine-driven science fiction to even the Fallout video game series in its indeterminate mixture of time periods and dusty mood; however, 9 is seen through tiny, overwhelmed, resourceful eyes, and there is great joy in seeing how Acker and crew show the stitchpunks etching out their existence out of the residue of human life. Archetypal locations – a church, a library, a factory – are given immense scale and wonder, and the dolls use discarded artifacts to create little gadgets, such as an elaborate torch made from a miniature lightbulb.
Better still are the machines: monsters crafted out of a nightmarish collision of electrical, household and industrial parts. A flying bat is all jagged blades and a motorised fan, but most striking is a hybrid snake-spider monster, that encases its prey in red thread, that has a baby doll’s head nestled on its shoulders. These are images born of wild, expressive imagination, and they stick with you.
It is unfortunate, therefore, that the story is so forgettable. Where the original short was 11 silent minutes of evocation and mystery, the feature length version of 9 is 79 minutes (that’s just over 1/2 a Dark Knight) of generic, half-baked nonsense.
The flaws show early in the film, where the opening 20 minutes are dedicated to almost simultaneous chase scenes, as opposed to any characterisation or breathing room. Before you know it, you’re knee deep in a bland story, involving one-dimensional identikit characters (a feisty female, a stupid brute, a mean old codger), and bluntly patronising storytelling about a strange talisman and the conflict between ‘the soul’ and ‘the intellect’. It wouldn’t be so bad, if 9 didn’t also sport one of the worst screenplays ever paired up with an animated film, with plenty of clunky one-liners, droll, workmanlike dialogue and heavy-handed thematics.
It’s hard to pin the blame for 9‘s flaws on anyone. Did Acker bite off more than he could chew by developing the story for the big screen? Did writer Pamela Pettler (Corpse Bride, Monster House, the upcoming film adaptation of Monopoly(!)) err to the side of boring convention when faced with the visionary director’s mad expressionism? What about producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov? Were they too stand-offish, or too meddlesome?
A lot of questions, and few answers. It is unfortunate that 9 is such a mess – a disarmingly short mess, with an abrupt ending, at that.
Acker obviously has great talent, and one sequence in particular, involving the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow, is a textbook piece of tension and upset expectations. But there’s no avoiding the fact that 9‘s narrative aspects are utterly terrible.
Its design work and tone scream ‘teenage audience’, with most sequences far too scary for little ‘uns, but the plot, themes and characters have little spark or intelligence running through them to engage even the youngest of viewers.
With plenty of better animated films on offer this year (Up, Coraline, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs), it is probably best to save time and money, and watch the short instead.