Mini Movie Review - '9'

Friday, September 11, 2009

As the dark, animated sci-fi tale "9" opens, a big question looms: Does "9" rival last year's "Wall E" as the best post-apocalyptic "cartoon"?

The short answer is nope.

"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 a wunderkind visionary, he is not Orson Welles, but he certainly has H.G. Wells's DNA.

But be warned, 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, must 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.

At times, "9" feels like Tim Burton animation not made by Tim Burton. But Burton did produce this film, (with Russian visionary Timur Bekmambetov), and it's nearly impossible to watch "9" without flashing on both the Vincent Price scenes in "Edward Scissorhands" and "Corpse Bride." Acker's visual gifts are undeniable. He uses CGI to simulate the look of stop-motion, and his rendering of texture -- from grimy fiber to yellowed paper -- is a wonder.

But the movie'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. But while "Wall E" led 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" list.

-- Michael Cavna

9 PG-13, 81 minutes Contains violence and scary images. Area theaters.

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