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MOVIE REVIEW

'9'

Shane Acker's expansion of his animated short is impressive and oppressive.

September 09, 2009|Michael Phillips

The new animated feature "9" delivers audiences into a blasted, desolate landscape reminiscent of Warsaw or Dresden after World War II. We're thrown headlong into a post-apocalyptic universe. Humanity is no more. Life, or something like it, has come down to the vicious combat between two species: machines resembling metallic dinosaurs, voracious and relentless, and a tiny band of brothers and sisters akin to burlap-sack hand puppets, with big goggle eyes and an instinct for survival.

So it's not "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs." Director Shane Acker's fantasy comes from his superb 2004 short subject (easily YouTube-able). The feature-length expansion of "9" does not feel artistically compromised or in any way interested in pandering to a young audience. The PG-13 rating is appropriate. Acker's influences are a stimulating lot, including Tim Burton (Burton is one of four producers on the project) and more to the non-human point, the melancholy riches of the stop-motion oddities created by Jan Svankmajer and especially the Brothers Quay, whose "Street of Crocodiles" remains a pinnacle of contemporary cinema in any genre.

Something has gone slightly awry, however, en route from the 11-minute film to the 79-minute edition of "9."

In the original, wordless short (the feature has dialogue, though less than usual for an animated film), as we came to know what's left of the planet through 9's mechanical but soulful eyes, the dread and wonder remained in perfect equipoise. The world Acker created was bleak but the sense of visual discovery was -- is -- awe-inspiring.

Acker and his screenwriter, Pamela Pettler (who worked on "Corpse Bride" and the underrated "Monster House"), begin well with 9, voiced by Elijah Wood, surveying an awful landscape of rubble and despair. Later we're informed of the story behind the invention of these things of shreds, patches and tool parts. At first, though, we simply follow 9 as he fights for his life amid the trash and dust and tries to get his bearings. Escaping one near-miss with a beast, he realizes he is not alone. There are others like him, and 9 becomes the story's savior figure.

The remaining members of the tribe, described in the film's background material as "stitchpunk" creations, include a paranoid elder (voiced by Christopher Plummer), whose tactics may be doing the group more harm than good; a sweet-natured engineer (voiced by John C. Reilly); and 7, the female Xena-type burlap warrior. The metallic adversaries suck the lives out of these little people by electrocuting them, after a fashion. This, like much of "9," has a parallel in Acker's short, though bearing down -- hard -- on five or six such sequences in the feature feels like piling on and flattening out.

This points to the film's chief drawback. It is undermined by a misjudged degree of grinding peril and dominated by a string of deadly encounters between metal beast and humanoid creation. Before long, the dread overtakes any sense of tonal variety.

Every year the envelope of contemporary animation is pushed, stretched and tested by all sorts of adventurous talents. Acker is one of them, and many will greet "9" as the best and bravest of its genre in a long time. I'm not there with it myself, especially not in a year in which both "Coraline" and "Up" asserted their own, stimulating sets of risks and rewards. Nor am I convinced that adding dialogue to this basic story was the right idea. Still, the film cannot be dismissed. I admire Acker's craftsmanship to the same degree I'm frustrated by what's missing or overstressed here, amid all the rough-textured details and the grim machine-ruled aesthetic.

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mjphillips@tribune.com

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'9'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence and scary images

Running time: 1 hour, 19 minutes

Playing: In general release

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