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Universal // PG-13 // December 29, 2009
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Casey Burchby | posted January 6, 2010 | E-mail the Author

Shane Acker's 2005 animated short film 9 is visually stunning, engaging, memorable, ambiguous, and suspenseful. Acker's 2009 feature version of 9 is narratively derivative, boring, bloated, and unambiguously expository. I point out these contrasts not because Acker is incapable of handling a feature length film - on the contrary, I look forward to his next work - but because 9 represents the small-mindedness of studios and their tendency toward boxed-in and self-defeating thought processes. A short film is a short film, which is a special art form. It has a purpose and a particular approach that make it different. How often does Random House or Simon & Schuster contact an author whose story has just appeared in the latest Glimmer Train and ask them to expand it into a novel? Never. So why do film execs believe that short films are cinematic Sea-Monkeys that just need a little studio cash to grow into features? The short version of 9 is pretty awesome; the feature is limp.

9 is the last in a series of mechanical creatures left behind by a scientist whose revolutionary robot "brain" was co-opted by a fascistic government and ultimately contributed to the destruction of mankind. The creatures have banded together to reconstruct what happened to their human predecessors. Riven by a disagreement as to how to solve the mysteries before them, the group is ultimately able to work together, making the world a more hospitable place and overcoming humanity's failures.

Acker's mastery of design assures that 9 is visually involving from beginning to end. The characters have an appealingly tactile look - they appear to be constructed of burlap fabric, zippers, and mechanical lenses for eyes. They are immediately endearing and likable. The backgrounds are executed beautifully, rich with detail. We move swiftly and surely through this world, seeing it through Acker's confident eye - he knows what he wants us to see and this results in a fully-imagined landscape.

The plot of the short version of 9 was punchy, strange, and focused. The plot of the feature is sticky with needless detail, expository dialogue, and second-hand ideas. It uncomfortably mixes in elements from The Secret of NIMH and The Matrix that are poorly integrated into the master story. The feature feels rehashed from bits and pieces, whereas the short felt unique. The reliance on dialogue is understandable; studios don't make silent films anymore. But this was part of the short version's charm - as a viewer, it's fun to be challenged to do mental work in figuring out a film's puzzles. In the feature version of 9, there are no puzzles. Everything is explained for us, and rather tediously and unconvincingly so. This aspect of the film's execution reeks of studio meddling.

Unwise use of dialogue or not, the voice actors do an admirable job with the lines they are given to read. Elijah Wood as 9 conveys the terror and wonder of being "born" fully-formed into a crumbling and chaotic world. Veterans Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau lend finely-modulated performances as 9's stern elder and mentor, respectively. Even Crispin Glover shows up (hooray!) for an appropriately mannered turn as the loony genius of the small group.

9 is an entertaining failure that is the product of two disparate ingredients: short-sighted studio maneuvering, and the hard work of many dedicated and talented filmmakers. The end result contains admirable visuals and voice work, but it is, ultimately, a stale hash bogged down by a screenplay that was, both narratively and thematically, overly finite.


The Video
The enhanced 1.78:1 transfer is lovely to look at. Acker's meticulous design is served well here. A dark color palette is perked up by flashes of neon green and deep electric reds. The excellent transfer is deeply detailed and doesn't break up when challenged by solid blacks. The visuals are 9's chief selling point, and the DVD handles them effortlessly.

The Audio
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack recreates a lovingly-mixed sound design that is awash with attention to every little whoosh and scrape in 9's devastated landscape. The actions of the pint-sized characters are often accompanied by a cavernous hollowness amid their oversized human-scale environment. The action and chase sequences burst with active surrounds and the occasional well-placed boom of a basso profundo explosion.

The Extras
A handful of decent bonuses are included that will no doubt pique the interest of the film's fans. First up is a full-length commentary track by Acker, animation director Joe Ksander, head of story Ryan O'Loughlin and editor Nick Kenway. The group comes off as likeable and dissects the film congenially, delving into the production in detail. Next up is a group of Deleted Scenes (7:24), all in animatic form. These would have bogged down the film and were excised prior to being fully animated. The featurette 9 - The Long and Short of It (16:28) describes the film's journey from short subject to theatrical feature. The Look of 9 (13:14) gets into the nature of 9's universe and how the design evolved. Acting Out (4:54) looks at the voice actors' performances. 9 - The Original Short (10:34) is accompanied by an optional commentary track with Acker and Ksander.

Final Thoughts

9 was an impressive short film that has been transmogrified into a visually impressive but otherwise lackluster middle-of-the-road animated feature. Studios seem to view short films as nascent features, when in fact they should be purchased and distributed theatrically alongside features, as they were in the early days of the cinema. This would help preserve and promote a very specific art form, one that Acker excels at. Rent it.

Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.

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