VOICE WORK BY Christopher Plummer, Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Jennifer Connelly, Martin Landau DIRECTED BY Shane Acker SCREENPLAY Pamela Pettler, Shane Acker MPAA RATING Rated PG-13 RUNNING TIME 79 Mins. DISTRIBUTED BY Focus Features
"9" is a frustrating mishmash of visual brilliance combined with a story so tedious and bogged down with trivial symbolism and paint-by-numbers dialogue so simplistic that one almost pictures director Shane Acker, upon whose 11-minute short film this is based, cringing at every single one of Pamela Pettler's words.
The story of "9" evolves around 9 central characters, who can best be described as 9 gothic beanbag characters attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world in which a monumental war between mankind and machines has left mankind decimated with its only semblance existing in these 9 beanbag characters.
Confused? You won't be. While these characters are difficult to describe, it is easy to follow them as they go head on against the remaining machines known as "Beasts" made of misshapen metals, twine and an assortment of items left over from the largely destroyed world.
On a certain level, "9" brings to mind another recent hyper-serious full-length animated feature, "Battle for Terra," a film that was certainly more colorful yet featured sledgehammer philosophy and morality tales wrapped within its sci-fi visuals and imagery. "9," on the other hand, is far more Burtonesque, not surprising given that the film is produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov. "9" has been described as steampunk, stitchpunk, and by a host of other times...in other words, nobody really knows what to call it but can't deny that it's pretty awesome to behold.
It likely goes without saying that "9" is going to garner some comparisons to the recent "District 9," despite the latter film being a live-action film. Both films are based upon short films, and the directors involved in both films were mentored by more famous counterparts, Peter Jackson with "District 9" and Tim Burton with "9." Additionally, both films portray future worlds in which man's inhumanity has directly impacted the quality and future of life on Earth.
The comparisons are fair, though this writer would definitely give the edge to "District 9," if only on the strength of its script alone.
Anyone familiar with Acker's 11-minute Oscar-nominated short film can't help but lament that the story in "9" falls so woefully short of Acker's awesome visuals. The 9 characters initially look and feel nondescript, yet by the end of the film it's rather astounding how intriguing and involving these characters have become despite being stuck with remarkably uninteresting dialogue. Acker's attention to detail and ability to develop humanity within these burlap bag characters is nothing short of remarkable, and the entire film is constructed with that same attention to detail, atmosphere and the importance of virtually every object within the film.
Yet, as miraculous as the visuals are, the film's storyline is utterly predictable and, at times, borders on pretentious philosophical masturbation to the highest degree. It is as if Pettler herself was wrestling with Acker's meaning, but didn't bother to consult with him. In the end, it feels like scene after scene contains excessive symbolism and morals that never gel. It doesn't help that these intense, dark images and messages are accompanied by one of Danny Elfman's most thundering scores ever.
It gets overwhelming.
It's never clear.
The voice work is generally fine across the board, and Acker has even taken great pains to create characters that reflect their real life counterparts, most notably Elijah Woods as #9 and the dour Christopher Plummer as #1, who once led everyone to safety but is now drowning in his own fear. Solid vocal work is also served up by Crispin Glover, John C. Reilly and Jennifer Connelly.
Fans of adult themes in animation will likely marvel at "9," and for these individuals the film will undoubtedly be a more positive experience than for those who require a bit more structure and a solid story to go with the technical wizardry. While "9" doesn't come close to living up to the short film upon which it is based, for its imaginative imagination and uniquely drawn characters alone it deserves at least a modest recommendation.
"9" is more like a "7," still worth seeing but had the storyline and dialogue equaled the rest of the film we'd likely be looking at yet another Oscar nomination for Acker. Instead, "9" merely serves as a feature-length debut for the young director.