9 -- Film Review

In "9," impressive young animator Shane Acker gets the opportunity -- sponsored by the likes of Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov -- to expand his Student Academy Award-winning short into a feature. You can catch the original on YouTube.

For 11 minutes, "9" is a mind-blower. But at 81 minutes and with famous actors voicing his characters, the new "9" is something less. It certainly is a valuable introduction to an exciting new talent, but by expanding the film's length, characters and otherworldly environment things are strangely diminished.

"9," which opens domestically Sept. 9 -- that's 09/09/09, by the way -- makes a worthwhile evening for admirers of adult animation and even for younger viewers who will thrill to its many chases and battles. The appeal is that of something definitely fresh and new.

There are two chief differences between the two "9s" other than length. The original contains no dialogue. These are characters, kinds of puppets really, who logically wouldn't have the gift of speech, so all the action and terror gets conveyed through gesture and movement.

More crucially, however, by delving deeper into his weird post-apocalyptic world, Acker must laboriously explain what was implicit but unstated in the original. Thus the new version, written by Pamela Pettler, robs this world of its mystery. To paraphrase Emperor Joseph II in "Amadeus," there are too many words here.

Acker's future world, rendered in sepia tones with many dark spaces, lies in ruins after a war between mankind and machines. But it's not a 21st century post-apocalypse but instead an early 20th century ruins. No computer or nuclear weaponry is involved. Rather the imaginative machinery derives from Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" by way of Baron Munchausen and Fritz Lang.

Its heroes are what Acker calls "stitchpunk" creations -- 8-inch puppets sewn together by a divine creator, in this case, the human inventor of the evil Great Machine -- that carry possessions within zippered bodies and have been endowed with a "soul" by their now-dead creator.

These creatures, with only numbers for names, must battle mechanical monsters in the ruins of a vaguely European city, a vast junkyard from which they scavenge useful debris.

The hero, #9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), who "awakens" as the movie begins, tries to rally a ragtag group of stichpunkers only to be blocked by their frightened leader, #1 (Christopher Plummer), whose every idea is bad. Other characters include #7 (Jennifer Connelly), a forceful Amazonian warrior; #5 (John C. Reilly), a stalwart engineer; #3 and #4, nonverbal twins that can play recordings and videos of the bygone world; #6 (Crispin Glover), a eccentric artist; and #2 (Martin Landau), an elderly inventor.

The great works of science fiction often are cautionary tales that contain social criticism about our world. "9," though, is built more for action. So its rag dolls and mechanical monsters battle continually in a dark, dreary landscape egged on by a rousing symphonic store. (The music is curiously attributed, with Danny Elfman credited with its themes, while Deborah Lurie has done the actual score.)

Yes, #9 must prevail through his wits rather than brawn -- he could hardly do otherwise against such huge machines. But thematically, "9" never adds up to much. It's a dark adult film that gives itself over to the chases and frights of a kiddie movie.

Nevertheless, one awaits with eager anticipation the next piece of animation from Shane Acker.

Opens: Wednesday, Aug. 18 (France); Wednesday, Sept. 9 (U.S.) (Focus Features)

Production: A Focus Features presentation in association with Relativity Media of a Jim Lemley/Tim Burton/Timur Bekmambetov production
Voice cast: Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, Crispin Glover, Martin Landau, Fred Tatasciore
Director-story: Shane Acker
Screenwriter: Pamela Pettler
Producers: Jim Lemley, Tim Burton, Timur Bekmambetov, Dana Ginsburg
Animation: Starz Animation, Toronto
Director of photography: Kevin R. Adams
Music themes: Danny Elfman
Music score: Deborah Lurie
Editor: Nick Kenway
Rated PG-13, 81 minutes