Shane Acker's 9 is a stunning achievement in animation, simple in its aims yet bizarre and fascinating to endless bounds. It carries a sense of mystery behind its construction that uses unanswered questions, like the fate of other beings not in the spotlight of the picture, to heighten both the bleakness and emotional investment.
These are actually comments better geared towards Acker's Academy-award nominated short from several years ago, a sharp piece of work that caught the eyes of Corpse Bride's Tim Burton and Night / Day Watch director Timur Bekmambetov. The piece intrigued them to such a degree that they hopped on-board to produce a feature-length rendition, an expounded spin on 9 that retains the same level of magic, charm, and bleakness of demeanor. It also, however, lacks a sense of awareness for our need to come up for air from its tense, thick air, which clouds spellbinding artistic achievement with a sense of grim staleness.
Acker's story takes place in a post-apocalyptic environment not unlike that of The Matrix, where machines created for humanity turn on them and begin a war. One scientist, desperate to preserve some form of life on earth, created nine animated burlap-sack dolls, each with a number correlating on their back. Our story begins with number "9" -- voiced by Elijah Wood -- waking up in a dusty lab office with a curious little device in front of him. He snaps it up and heads off to the ruins outside, where nobody seems to be left to tell him what happened. As he's wandering, and dodging the pursuits of a menacing mechanized creature, he stumbles onto another burlap doll -- number "2" (Martin Landau) -- who helps him. Through happenstance, following an act of bravery on 2's part that gets him captured by the "beast", another doll, "5" (John C. Reilly) brings him to a fortified area, "stitches" him up and introduces him to several more of the nine burlap dolls.
As soon as we see both number "2" and number "9" together at the start, and a few puzzle pieces snap together in our heads, it triggers a question: where are the rest of them? That's a question left vague in Shane Acker's short film, as we only interact with two of them, which is addressed with fluid characterization in the feature-length rendition. Aside from a plate stitched on top of one of the dolls in the short, there's very little to discern them as "personalities" visually. That's aside from their movements and silence-driven dynamics, which echo a father-son type of rhythm. Acker and his animation team have added more spice to the mix by giving voices and very distinct traits to his creations, accentuated by more emotional shutter-like optical devices as eyes and different cloth / zippers covering their bodies. Each one has their own personality, whether it's the silent nature of "observer" twins 3 and 4, the warrior poise of renegade number 7 (Jennifer Connelly), or the sheltered, jaded nature of the ringleader, number 1 (Christopher Plummer) -- yet none of them are too distinct, or too amiable.
Early on, 9 quickly earns its PG-13 rating: there's a force out to steal the souls of the dolls, a man-made creation that grabs them violently in its claws and extracts their glowing essence in a rather disturbing manner. It's at this point that Acker's film makes it obvious that it's clearly not geared towards a younger audience, if the post-apocalyptic images of nerve gas and killer robots weren't enough. However, that relentless adult-minded demeanor also becomes its biggest issue. It never comes up from its bleakness to gasp a breath of air, sporting hardly any flickers of humor -- okay, there's one flicker, but it's 2/3rds the way in and very subtle -- to loosen the mood. Now, I'm all for a dark and depressing tale filled with blinding tension, and that atmosphere Acker creates is indelible; however, staying that course from start to finish, without pushing the envelope in either the direction of joyful repose or utter damnation, shapes it into a somewhat drably expressive piece of work.
Where 9 lacks in emotional focus, it more than makes up for it in artistic polish. Without question, Acker's film is a stunning rendering of a post-apocalyptic environment, filled with contorted metal and dusty industrial vistas that stretch for miles upon empty miles. The decision to keep the camera movement close to the ground is a striking one, giving us the opportunity to see what the puppets see amid the dusty '20s-'30s destroyed atmosphere. As eye-grabbing as the setting is, it's the "stitchpunk" character models that are really stunning. Each one is really nothing more than zippers, textured cloth, and fluctuating camera lenses for eyes -- yet the amount of personality they have, paired with the well-chosen vocals from a great cast, can really impress. Acker's shift to the big screen take that to a striking level, most of which relies on a level of stillness and silence for its entrancing mood.
As much focus has been poured into the imaginative construction of Shane Acker's dreary vision, 9's still simply a clear-cut adventure, undemanding but told with ringing thoughtfulness coasting underneath. His beefed-up script, which follows the same general line of narrative as the short, takes us through several thrilling cat-and-mouse sequences where the dolls run from their robo-monster predators, built around the necessity for them to live, in essence, for the fallen humans. The threats are captivatingly built, one a mechanized cat-like creature carried over from the short and another that resembles a violent spin on HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet there's a spooky sense of humanity behind them that speaks of their creators, which unveils a compelling vein of mystery underneath the mechanical surface-level story.
9's thematic drive is built around a sense of togetherness vs. solitude -- typical, step-by-step Lord of the Flies type of banter, but still appealing -- that finally grips around a nicely constructed, downkey twist, answering all the questions about the origin of these nine creations. However, Acker's expanded vision doesn't fully satisfy. It left me spellbound yet empty at its close, maybe with a thought or two about the nature of humanity's resolve but ultimately hollow. Though still a beautiful creation and well worth the experience for its level of desolate visual aims, its momentum only satisfies little more than peripheral curiosities. With material too frightening for children, it culminates into an interesting piece of cinematic animation that bridges an odd dynamic to its audience. It's hard to think of a picture that's stunning, thrilling, and subdued all at the same time, but that's exactly what Shane Acker's film accomplishes.
Universal have made Shane Acker's 9 available in a standard Blu-ray presentation with a cardboard slipcover encasing the blue case. Inside, there's nothing except for the silver-topped disc with only minimal writing to assure that it's a) the movie you've purchased, and b) the Blu-ray you've purchased. It's an attractive package, aside from the disappointing lack of artwork on the disc.
Video and Audio:
Universal delivered a spectacular high-definition presentation of Henry Selick's Coraline earlier in the year, cutting their teeth brilliantly in the animated spectrum of Blu-ray technology. They transferred the blend of computer-generated animation and stop-motion work through a real stunner of a disc -- at least, on the two-dimensional side of things. This same quality can be seen in their 1.78:1 1080p VC-1 encode for 9, a sublimely detailed and rich offering of complete CG material. Shane Acker's vision is densely textured, both in the character models and the surrounding environment, and Universal's image replicates every ounce of its dilapidated beauty.
Shots of decaying buildings make broad use of the disc's capacity for texture and contrast, which give the image a vastness of dimensionality that's staggering. It's worth noting the transfer's darkness, which shows off attractiveness within a dim, desolate palette. But, just like the whimsical visuals themselves, the real potency of the disc comes in the character models. Each and every stitch of the burlap material in the dolls is razor sharp, convincing us of their tangibility to unrelenting degrees. However, the image contains more than just broken-down building and rough cloth; some of the colors at play, both in the outdoor scenes and in the blasts of neon-drenched colors used in the soul extraction sequences, maintain sublime solidity with absolutely no distortion. Acker's creation is a dark, rich beauty, and this Blu-ray presentation doesn't disappoint in the slightest.
An English DTS HD Master Audio track accompanies the visual treatment, and it's about as complex and pleasing as the transfer. One of the secrets about 9 comes in the fact that it's a fairly active action-adventure film, filled with tons of clanking metal, roaring from a mechanical beast, and plenty of boisterous low-end rumbling from a slew of different sources. All of that thunders through the track with firm captivation, keeping deep blasts of sound from pounding too hard and low-to-mid effects both crisp and mindful of the treble-bass balance. There's a wealth of delicate distanced effects present in the sublime sound design that are preserved elegantly here, like graceful incorporation of Deborah Lurie's original music and sly ambient effects like wind and dust. On top of that, you're going to hear every ounce of the star-studded dialogue with as much clarity as the track can muster, brilliantly clear and very mindfully mixed against the environmental sound design. With its blend of grace and activity, it's one of the better Master Audio tracks of 2009. Subtitles are available in optional English, Spanish, and French languages, along with Spanish and French DTS tracks to accompany the film.
Commentary with Shane Acker and Crew:
To top things off, Shane Acker, animation director Joe Ksander, head of story Ryan O'Loughlin, and editor Nick Kenway hop into the recording chairs for a great commentary. As with other up-and-coming directors who haven't dabbled endlessly into their artform with commentaries, Acker and company's contributions are persistent, enthusiastic, and highly enlightening on both the process of building the animation and the thematic qualities of the picture. It talks about the action sequences, realism behind the mechanized creatures, historical reflection on its design, you name it. Great track.
This picture-in-picture interactive feature takes recorded footage, some mentioned below in the special features and others recorded/taken at the same time, and pairs them within a green box at the lower-right portion of the screen. Interviews with Shane Acker, Tim Burton, Elijah Wood, Pamela Pettler, and others elucidate the process, while a sizable chunk of the dialogue recording footage mixes within raw concepts and behind-the-scenes footage. At times, some of the Picture-in-Picture features on other discs can be a bit sparse with content, but this one continues with the material with very few pauses.
9 -- The Long and Short of It (16:28, HD):
Naturally, this feature discusses Shane Acker's process of assembling the short, and how it's adapted to the big screen. Discussion pops up about Acker's process of building the film as his college thesis, along with how earning an Oscar changed his life. It then shifts over into how the short film fell over into Tim Burton's hands as a producer. Then, Acker and screenwriter Pamela Pettler (Corpse Bride) guide us through the process of bridging that gap between his short to the feature length, as well as whether they wanted to include dialog or not in telling the story. Interview time crops up with Acker, Burton, Pettler, as well as with Elijah Wood and other members of the cast, taken from both original interviews and archive footage.
On Tour with Shane Acker (5:36, HD):
Shane Acker takes us through the Starz Animation workhouse for the construction of 9, illustrating each depart in great detail. He talks about editorials, the art department, modeling, animation, layout, effects work in "the dungeon", and lighting. Hearing discussion about the film itself is great, but the behind-the-scenes shots of the computer imaging and the concept sketches are the real draws to this featurette.
The Look of 9 (13:12, HD):
Composing the visual look for 9 falls into focus here, as Shane Acker and others discuss the time placement of the story. They discuss the "caution tale" elements of the film, as well as the Industrial Revolution look about the picture that slaps it in the middle between World War I and II. It also discusses the low-angle construction of the film, and how it allows for a lot of great up-glancing shots. They also discuss the beauty used behind the rust, garbage, and industrial grunge appeal to the film, and how the feel of the film reflects on its influences.
Acting Out (4:54, HD):
To round out the featurettes, this piece covers how the animators become actors themselves as they construct the burlap dolls in the film. It discusses how they have mirrors at their desk to see facial expressions, and the dual uses behind having the recorded dialogue footage of the actors for both lip sync and emotion purposes.
9 -- The Original Short (10:33, Letterbox 4x3 HD):
As a very special treat, Universal have also included Shane Acker's original short on the disc -- with a commentary featuring Shane Acker and animator Joe Ksander. The commentary is very dense, as they discuss the differences between the two features -- where elements of the short went into the feature, the dynamics between the two puppets, the lack of dialogue, etc. -- and the entire "guerilla" feel to the camera movement. What's a shame is that it's a letterbox HD version of the short; and, since it's in 1080p, most Blu-ray players and internal zoom televisions can't zoom in on it. Still, the simple inclusion of the piece itself is absolutely wonderful.
Also included on this disc are five Deleted Scenes (7:24, 16x9 SD), available in striking storyboard illustrations. This Blu-ray Disc has also been activated in order to hop onto Universal's online framework, as well as containing pocketBLU interactivity. However, the online functions weren't active yet as of this testing. It's also been incorporated with Chapter / Bookmarking of "favorite scenes", like all of Universal's other discs, and activated with D-BOX motion control.
It's hard not to go into Shane Acker's 9 with a lot of enthusiasm, especially when two very creative minds -- Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov -- headline the production crew. Their influence can partly be felt, but this certainly pours from the seams with Acker's creative juices. As an artistic piece and a thrilling adventure, it's very satisfying; beyond that, when looking a bit deeper into its potentially existential context, it's a bit shallower than expected. It also strays very, very little from its relentlessly stylish darkness, dragging us through the dilapidation without much in the way of joyful or humorous relief. That's the kind of picture 9 is, though.
Universal continues their range of success with animation on this Blu-ray presentation of Acker's film, sporting an astronomically clear, densely textured, and entrancing presentation of the picture both in its 1080p visual projection and the DTS HD Master Audio track. Topped off with a wide array of special features, including a commentary, several strong featurettes, and the original short, this is a Highly Recommended disc that presents a somber yet thrilling piece of animation in an impressive way.
Note: Promotional shots in this review do not represent the quality of this Blu-ray disc.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site