9 (2009): Shane Acker Directing Debut–Quirky Animation

Director Shane Acker’s striking feature directorial debut, the animated fantasy-adventure “9,” is the feature-length expansion of his 2004 Oscar-nominated 11-minute short of the same name, produced by Tim Burton and Russian helmer Timur Bekmambetov (the actioner “Wanted” with Angelina Jolie).
Don’t get confused.  It just happens that this season the market is flooded with movies whose title is 9.  There’s Neill Blomkamp’s terrific sci-fi thriller “District 9,” not to mention the upcoming Rob Marshall’s musical “Nine,” or the Israeli film “9.99.”  Moreover, Focus’s theatrical release of “9” is, appropriately or not, on September 9, 2009, which is 9/9/09.


Still short (about 82 minutes) by standards of most movies, “9” is nonetheless a quirky animation, boasting impressive visuals and a voice cast of actors not usually associated with the genre, such as Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, Crispin Glover, Martin Landau,


Set in the too-near future, this apocalyptic tale is based on an interesting premise. Powered and enabled by the invention known as the Great Machine, the world’s machines have turned on mankind and sparked social unrest, decimating the human population before being largely shut down. It becomes the sacred mission of pint-sized humanoids to perpetuate “life” as we know it on the planet.


Indeed, as the world falls to pieces, the mission to salvage the legacy of civilization becomes all the more relevant.  It turns out that a group of small creations was given the spark of life by a scientist in the final days of humanity.  Which means they can continue to exist post-apocalypse.


Elijah Wood (of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) voices “9,” a creature that surprisingly emerges with the kind of leadership qualities that may help them survive and possibly even thrive.  But it’s not going to be an easy task, not with this  strange composition of offbeat characters.  The conflicted but resilient tribe already includes #1 (Christopher Plummer), a domineering war veteran and the group’s longtime leader; #2 (Martin Landau), a kindly but frail inventor; #3 and #4, scholarly twins who communicate nonverbally and mostly with each other; #5 (John C. Reilly), a stalwart and nurturing engineer; #6 (Crispin Glover), an erratic artist beset by visions; #7 (Jennifer Connelly), a brave and self-sufficient warrior; and #8 (Fred Tatasciore), the none-too-bright muscle and enforcer for #1.


The small group of so-called “stitchpunk” creations must summon individual strengths beyond their own proportions and normal abilities in order to outwit and fight against still-functioning machines, one of which is a marauding mechanized beast. In the darkness just before the dawn, #9 rallies everyone of his number to band together.


While showcasing a stunning “steampunk”-styled visual brilliance, “9” also explores the will to live, the power of community, and the responsibility of individuals vis-a-vis the larger society, or more specifically, how one individual can change the world.


In the press notes, helmer Acker observes: “At the end of the last century, I had the idea for the character of #9, an innocent who would risk his life for his brethren and use intellect rather than might to slay a beast. I wanted to depict him empathetically, without dialogue. This way, the short film could be universal and accessible, while also challenging the audience to piece the details together in order to understand the whole.”


In the new feature, however, the group’s members can talk, and we are subjected to not always interesting or witty conversations, curtsey of scribe Pamela Pettler, who had penned “Monster House” as well as “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride,” about devising strategies of how handle efficiently and triumphantly the various, threatening monster.


But with all the praise for the visuals and other production values, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the central story is too slender for a feature-length picture (even one that’s 70 minutes long without credits), and that the apocalyptic setting may be too familiar from recent animation (Disney’s brilliant “Wall-E”) and live-action Hollywood movies (such as Will Smith’s “I Am Legend”).