Shane Acker’s 11-minute short, the inspiration for 9, is brilliant.
It was nominated for an Oscar and it screams with invention. In a desolate, war-ravaged world, a Hessian doll runs from a spidery mechanical demon with the head of a dead cat and flashing eyes that sap the souls of his companions. It’s dialogue-free and filled with melancholy and an itchy creepiness.
Shane Acker’s feature-length version, produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, takes everything that makes the short outstanding, waters it down, camps it up, ekes it out and very nearly ruins it by turning a bleak nightmare fantasy into a po-faced, sock-puppet Terminator.
Very nearly, but not quite. Set in the same sad ruins, 9 takes the extra time to expand its characters – the nine ‘stitch punk’ dolls given life by a scientist on the eve of the human race’s extinction – and pads out the story. Dialogue is added (Elijah Wood, John C Reilly, Jennifer Connelly and Christopher Plummer provide voices) and the monster quotient upped.
The trouble is we’ve seen much of this before. Apocalypse. Machines. Plucky heroes. A cautionary message… And while the robot rumbles start off kind of cool, they fall victim to diminishing returns. Adding dialogue makes complete sense in a full-length feature, but Pamela Pettler’s script often lapses into stilted, simplistic talk better suited to a pre-school kids’ show.
Numerous unanswered questions, a bizarre ‘upbeat’ ending, muted emotional impact and lack of leavening humour make 9 feel half-baked. A crying shame since Acker is clearly a talented man.
The film still looks incredible and the little raggedy fellows make sympathetic heroes, with several moments of real menace when the spindly mecha-spiders tear and toss them like... well... rag dolls. With so much potential this should have been a masterpiece. Instead 9 just ends up sew-sew.
Great material, credible producers, top voice talent and gorgeous visuals, stitched together to make a patchwork that’s less than the sum of its parts. Striking and ambitious, but worn at the seams.