09/09/09 and the Release of 9

Today is 09/09/09, a fitting release date for Tim Burton, Shane Acker and Timur Bekmambetov’s post-apocalyptic CGI fantasy, 9. A lot of the plot and images were kept under wraps, but now audiences can finally see the world of the burlap ‘stitchpunks’ brought to life in a whole new way.

And, of course, I say ‘new’ because this isn’t the first time Shane Acker’s creations have graced the big screen! In 2005, he created an Academy Award-nominated short film that not only introduced the characters, but got Tim Burton’s attention and gave him the chance to expand his vision into a 79-minute thrill ride. Here’s a look!

For more, here’s a CBC review of 9, which calls it visually stunning and immersive, if lacking in some of the heart found in the original short.

The film 9 arrives in theatres with an interesting back story. After making a 10-minute, Academy-Award nominated short of the same name in 2005, gifted animator Shane Acker, then a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, attracted the attention of some Hollywood producers. One of them was Tim Burton, who gave Acker the funds to extend the project to feature length.

It’s easy to see why Burton was drawn to the material. Set in the kind of wonky, soot-smeared universe that makes goth hearts go pitter-patter, 9 has much in common with Burton’s best work — 9’s opening scenes could’ve been pulled from Burton’s own dark fairy tale, Edward Scissorhands.

When the feature-length 9 begins, we see the hands of a mysterious scientist fashioning strange, sock-puppet dolls out of whatever junkyard scraps are available — zippers, pieces of copper and tattered, grainy cloth. As the narrator explains, these “stitchpunk” creatures are what the scientist intended to leave behind when mankind finally lost its battle against machines.

After the opening, we see an orphaned cloth doll, named 9 for the number on his back, waking to a bombed-out, post-apocalyptic landscape with few signs of life, save for some tattered “Revolt!” posters blowing through the streets like tumbleweeds.

9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) meets one of his peers, 2 (Martin Landau), only to see him dragged off by a menacing beast with metallic spider’s legs and a red laser-beam eye it uses to hypnotize its victims. Soon, 9 happens upon other fellow stitchpunks, and implores them to join his mission to save 2 from the monster’s clutches.

This band of revolutionaries is a motley crew. There is the one-eyed 5 (John C. Reilly), a softie inspired by 9’s bravery; 7 (Jennifer Connelly), a warrior woman sporting a metallic bird’s-beak helmet; 6 (Crispin Glover), an artist in striped pajamas; 3 and 4, twin dolls in blue hoodies who can project movies through nifty eyeball lenses; and 1 (Christopher Plummer), a sour, aging leader so reluctant to act that it prompts 9 to accuse him of being “guided by fear.”

This setup, which unfolds in the first 20 minutes of 9’s scant, 79-minute running time, is filled with promise. The animation, so rich that you can almost feel the ruddy textures of the stitchpunks’ burlap bodies, is truly exquisite. Plus, the industrial wasteland the creatures inhabit — a bleak Dickensian landscape where smokestacks loom and mangled doll’s heads litter the ground — is never less than absorbing.

Sadly, screenwriter Pamela Pettler (Corpse Bride) can’t match Acker’s imagination and visual audacity. Save for one flashback sequence that offers a haunting glimpse of when a fascistic leader used a machine called “the brain” to bring about man’s extinction, there’s little thematic meat to chew on in 9. The conflicting leadership styles of the idealistic 9 and the crusty 1, as well as the flicker of a love story between the young hero and the spunky 7, are abandoned in favour of chase sequences, as the beast bears down, time and again, on the tiny gang of humanoid survivors.

These ubiquitous chases are actually quite violent, and the relentless, skull-baring monster is so terrifying that I found myself wondering what audience 9 is seeking. It’s far too dark and frightening for kids, and too slight and insubstantial to be satisfying to adults.

The simplistic script, which proceeds in predictable fits and spurts of action and rest once the beast gets the dolls in its sights, might be forgiven if it inspired more emotional investment in the admittedly adorable stitchpunk protagonists. Given such little time to establish their unique identities, none of the characters makes much of an impact, save for 5, who is voiced with John C. Reilly’s characteristic warmth and lovable menschiness.

If 9 has a central idea, it’s that all of the intelligence and good intentions in the world can’t save an invention that lacks a soul — a lesson I wish 9’s makers had heeded more closely. For all of its inventiveness and gorgeous animation, 9 is curiously unmoving — if it’s the end of the world as we know it, then how come I felt just fine?