Released on 09/09/09 (clever), Shane Acker’s 9 – based on the Oscar-nominated short film of the same name – was able to see the light of day as a feature-length production thanks to the personal investment of the short’s biggest fan, Tim Burton. As a producer of 9, a credit featured prominently on the film’s official poster, Burton lends a built-in fan base of filmgoers drawn to the dark side to the post-apocalyptic world of Acker’s tale. Set in a future age where machines have annihilated every living thing on the planet, only a handful of semi-humanoid beings have survived: nine rag dolls, each imbued with a fraction of the soul of their alchemist creator. The rag dolls, also known as “Stitchpunks,” are assigned a number as well as a defining characteristic that makes up the whole spectrum of human emotion; the film’s hero is rag doll number 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), the most thoughtful and empathetic of them all. Together the Stitchpunks must defeat an industrious and aggressive device known as the Fabrication Machine, the leader of all the instruments of war that wiped out mankind.
Machines make up a great deal of what is visually compelling about this film, and it is in that sense that 9 doesn’t disappoint. The Fabrication Machine is a looming hulk of metal, glowering menacingly with a giant red beam for an eye; the ‘Winged Beast’ swoops down on prey with pterodactyl-like wings and claws; and the ‘Seamstress,’ endowed with mechanical appendages that wield sharp sewing tools, was designed to create but reprogrammed to kill. The nuts-and-bolts of these mechanized robots are a striking contrast to the soft stitches of the burlap rag dolls, dotted with buttons and zippers, their curious eyes peeking out from behind aviator goggles. Acker’s flair for the chromatics of light and darkness are beautifully evident in shots of the film’s murky industrial wasteland. An especially nostalgic touch is visible in Stitchpunks 3 and 4, who cast light into the shadows by projecting films from the fluttering bulbs of their eyes.
Though 9 is a visual marvel, the film struggles with adapting the story from the short on which it’s based into feature-length material. Clocking in at an abbreviated 79 minutes, more of the film’s runtime is devoted to showy action set pieces than conflict between the Stitchpunks and the inner discord within their group. Without a significant emotional foundation for the larger and more immediate threat of the Fabrication Machine, there’s even less for the audience to feel invested in. Part of the problem is that the film opens with the character of 9 waking up after the Fabrication Machine’s destruction has taken place, so he is filled in on these cataclysmic events via newscast. For the filmmakers, this is a way to sneak in some exposition while circumventing the expense and time it takes to fully develop these sequences; but for the audience, it renders us less mindful of what’s at stake. If the film had spent more time on the events prior to 9’s awakening and included more scenes with the Stitchpunk’s scientist creator, there might be greater impetus to see these rag dolls as multifaceted humanoid characters – not just objects identified by a number and a singular personality trait.
While Burton’s unique milieu is a noticeable influence on Acker’s work, perhaps a loftier comparison can be drawn to a filmmaker whose work is sometimes incorrectly attributed to Burton: The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick. Arriving in theaters six months before 9 made its feature-length debut, Selick’s Coraline shares 9’s aesthetic sensibility in the realm of stop-motion animation, backed by a solid story that deepens its emotional resonance. If Shane Acker took a cue from Selick and expanded the inner world of his characters rather than just the physical one, he might have a near-perfect addition to the dystopian film canon. Instead, 9 remains a visually engrossing though ultimately hollow animated apocalypse.