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9 Review

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In a post-apocalyptic future, sackcloth doll 9 (Elijah Wood) wakes up to find more of his kind struggling for survival against terrifying machines. When 2 (Martin Landau) is abducted, 9 rallies his cohorts for one last chance to save humanity...

★★★★★

It’s with no small irony that the apocalyptic wastelands have proved such fertile ground for filmmakers. We’ve been underwater, monkey-ruled, machine-controlled, zombie-infested, and soon we’ll be entirely swept away in 2012. For now, however, we all appear to be dead, and a modern-day Geppetto has left a ragbag collection of numbered hessian dolls to fight for the survival of humanity in writer/director Shane Acker’s full-length debut.

Acker’s skills with exhaustively detailed CG animation were rewarded by the Academy with the 2005 release of 9, an 11-minute wordless short from which this 79-minute talkie has sprung. With his Oscar-nominated quickie, Acker revealed his influences, ranging from UK-based filmmakers the Quay Brothers to French comic-book genius Moebius, but it’s clear that Tim Burton, who served as a producer on the feature-length 9, is a good fit. There’s more than a touch of The Nightmare Before Christmas to the film’s look, but Acker has taken his photo-surreal imagery in a refreshing direction.

To assist him in expanding his tale, Burton paired Acker with writer Pamela Pettler, who scribed Corpse Bride for the Goth guru. Even with a relatively short 68 minutes left to fill, they had their work cut out to expand what is a very simple story.

Voiced by Elijah Wood, 9 awakes to find himself in what looks like a World War II-era world destroyed by machines, only to find a small society of similarly sewn sad-sacks hiding from The Beast, a metal machine intent on amassing a living doll collection. Self-proclaimed leader 1 (Christopher Plummer) keeps his troops in hiding, but newbie 9 convinces them they must attack to survive. Along the way, they uncover a Pathé-style newsreel that reveals their destiny — 9 and his new chums have been imbued with the last vestiges of humanity and must fight for what is left of the human soul.

Visually, 9 is extraordinary, offering a level of detail and imagination that makes even Pixar’s back catalogue seem twee. Our numerical heroes’ coarse burlap bodies all but scratch the screen, and Acker has created (and destroyed) an incredible world with all the angular wonder you might only expect from an architecture graduate.

Where 9 fails to match Pixar’s output is on story and character; this evocative post-apocalyptic sprawl is married to a plodding plot. Machines destroyed the world! The survivors must fight! For so much originality of style, you expect more from a narrative that too often dissolves into a series of set-piece chases. Yes, we’re introduced to the rebellious 7 and 2, the kind old soul, but their one-dimensional traits do little to help you connect to them on any emotional level.

There’s also a problem with 9’s target audience: too violent for tots, too shallow for adults, it exists in a world uninviting to either camp. Which is a pity as, artistically, 9 has pushed computer animation away from the cute and into the shadows. Acker needs to be watched. Add a telling story, and maybe next time he’ll make a ten.

The apocalyptic 9 offers innovative images of a broken Earth inhabited by woven warriors battling machines. But it’s more style than substance — this mechanical tale needs a human touch.