Monday, September 07, 2009

9: The Animated Feature

Ten and a half minutes put Shane Acker on the map. That was the length of his animated short 9, which won the Student Academy Award and received a legitimate Oscar nomination. Now in the tradition of sci-fi fix-up novels expanded from award-winning short stories, Acker has revised and lengthened 9 (trailer here) into a full animated feature that opens nationwide on 9-9-09.

Humanity is dead, victims of their own killing machines. The earth is now a post-apocalyptic wasteland, inhabited only by a handful of stitched together beings and the few remaining rogue machines. Such is the world “9” finds himself in as he gains consciousness.

He soon encounters the old but resourceful “2,” but their meeting is cut-short by one of the mechanical beasts that prowl the surreal landscape. Eventually, he meets more of his kind, identifiable by the digits stenciled on their backs. Of course, each is given stock personality traits, like the cautious leader logically known as “1,” his dumb muscle “8,” the artistic weirdo “6,” the shy put-upon “5,” and the brashly independent “7,” who is probably attractive for a stitched-together puppet, since she is voiced by Jennifer Connelly.

Like its characters, 9 could have been cobbled together from parts of other films. If you think of it as Pinocchio meets Terminator, you have a decent idea of the film’s general ambiance and the direction of its story. However, Acker and animation director Joe Ksander create a nicely realized world, rich in detail. Strangely, some of their most striking visuals actually involve humans, seen in flashbacks or through warped perspectives. Their holographic scenes explaining the origin of the machines are particularly interesting, seemingly stylized to resemble early Soviet propaganda films.

In truth, Pamela Pettler’s screenplay breaks no new ground, relying on familiar tropes and stock characters. It even sacrifices one of the clever plot points of Acker’s original short. However, there are some worthy lessons to take from 9’s expanded story, like the fact we must live with our mistakes no matter how painful they might be, and that there come times when it is necessary to stand and fight.

Unfortunately, Elijah Wood frankly sounds a bit whiny at times voicing 9. In fact, aside from the commanding Christopher Plummer as 1 and the warm, confident tones of Connelly, the vocal performances do little to distinguish the similar looking characters.

9’s animation is quite remarkable, but its screenplay could have gone through a few more drafts. Ultimately, it is probably too intense for youngsters and too predictable for older viewers, or at least those who are not animation aficionados. Still, Acker and his team of animators deserve credit for the talent and effort that clearly went into the visually arresting film. It opens Wednesday (9/9) in New York at the Union Square and Battery Park Regal Cinemas.