'9': 1 Part Plot, 1 Part Casting, 7 Parts Wonder

By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

As the dark, animated sci-fi tale "9" -- not to be confused with the current sci-fi film "District 9" or the upcoming star-studded musical movie "Nine" -- opens Wednesday (as in 9-9-09), a big question looms: Does "9" rival last year's "Wall E" as the best post-apocalyptic "cartoon"?

The short answer is Nein.

"9" is, however, a visual stunner.

The film, Shane Acker's feature-length telling of his Oscar-nominated student short, will expose the animator's talents to a much wider pre-apocalyptic world. As wunderkind visionary, he is not Orson Welles, but he certainly has H.G. Wells's DNA.

Dissecting a film that was first storyboarded at UCLA nearly a decade ago should be undertaken not with a knuckle-dragger's thumbs up or down, but with a certain scientific deduction. So here are Nine Things You Should Know About "9":

1. Humanity-imbued rag dolls battle robotic war machines -- but it's not for the younger rungs of the Disney crowd.

This Focus Features film is more menacing buzz saw than Buzz Lightyear. Nine burlapped Beowulfian Bravehearts -- Acker dubs them "stitchpunk" dolls -- individually represent parts of their late Scientist-Creator's soul. Humanity has been wiped out by the rise (and rage) of the machines, so these small dolls -- each possessing a distinct personality -- band together to try to conquer a Cat Beast and a Winged Beast, among other fiercely clattering creatures. The stitchpunks stab 'em with their steely knives, but they just can't kill the beasts.

2. YouTube holds all the answers.

After watching the trailer, the quickest litmus test for you is the 11-minute short "9" that scored Acker an invite to the 2005 Oscar party as a nominee. If the short doesn't capture your fancy on YouTube , you can stop now and save your 9 -- yes, nine -- dollars at the movie theater.

3. At times, "9" feels like Tim Burton animation not made by Tim Burton.

There is a reason Burton produced this film (with Russian visionary Timur Bekmambetov). Burton told me at San Diego Comic-Con in July that he saw a lot of himself in Acker's short, creatively, and it's nearly impossible to watch "9" without flashing on both the Vincent Price scenes in "Edward Scissorhands" and "Corpse Bride." And there's a reason "Bride" co-writer Pamela Pettler was brought on to write the screenplay for "9."

4. "9" flies high -- like a post-apocalyptic pterodactyl -- on borrowed wings.

If you're still with us after viewing the "9" short on YouTube, search for snippets of "Street of Crocodiles," the 1986 stop-motion masterpiece by the legendary Brothers Quay (twins Stephen and Timothy). This Cannes-nominated short -- among Acker's acknowledged inspirations -- features eerie dolls and puppetry.

After that, check out the Oscar-winning seven-minute short "Balance" (1989), by twins Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein; their gaunt characters sport numbers on their backs -- just like Acker's stitchpunks. And then there's the influence of towering Czech animator Jan Svankmajer.

As creative debts go, Acker's are as large as your average UCLA student loan. (A seemingly obvious homage to both the Quays and the Lauensteins: Two of the stitchpunks are twins.) But there's one key distinction . . .

5. Acker's visual gifts are undeniable.

If "Street of Crocodiles" is the stop-motion genius equivalent of Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times," then Acker is trying to bring stop-motion into modern times. He uses CGI to simulate the look of stop-motion, and his rendering of texture -- from grimy fiber to yellowed paper -- is a wonder.

6. "9's" plotting is as mechanical as its war machines.

It's a pity that "9" follows in the wake of "Wall E," because it suffers greatly from the inevitable comparison. "Wall E" already did robots scuttling around mounds of post-apocalyptic debris -- even already did moments of machines warming to vintage movie music (Acker uses "Somewhere Over the Rainbow").

But while "Wall E" leads with its heart, "9" -- for all its talk of preserving the human soul -- is too busy dodging creaking machines to pause and let us feel any real depth of connection among the plucky stitchpunkers. If Acker had replaced even 20 minutes of laser-fire with emotional heat, this film would turn up on some year-end "best" lists.

7. "9" features a stroke of genius in casting.

This film engages the voice talents of Elijah Wood (as the upstart leader 9), Jennifer Connelly (the spirited fighter 7), John C. Reilly (meek but helpful 5) and Crispin Glover (the artist 6, whose drawings summon thoughts of Ralph Steadman), as well as Martin Landau (2) and Christopher Plummer (1).

But the casting coup is the toymaker Scientist, who invents a grand wartime machine that the government puts to dangerous use. It's hard not to dwell on "the father of the atomic bomb," Robert Oppenheimer. For the role, Acker got longtime voice actor Alan Oppenheimer ("Mighty Mouse" to "Scooby-Doo" roles). And Alan's third cousin? Robert, natch. It's so organic it's eerie.

8. Even if "9" does middling box office, Acker's ascendance is secure.

"9" is too adult for the general kiddie audience and it won't provide enough depth-of-story for many adults, but make no mistake: "9" is a true technical achievement -- one that will be studied by the next wave of animators.

9. Go back and stare at the movie stills.

What will linger is not the dialogue. It's the state-of-the-art visuals that will rock many a viewer's world -- their pre-apocalyptic world.

9 (81 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence and scary images.

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