In 2005, after four exhaustive years, graduate student Shane Acker completed his eleven-minute college thesis for UCLA’s Animation Workshop. Filmed without dialogue, “9” was the visually absorbing, computer-generated tale of a “stitchpunk” rag doll battling a mechanical beast in a post-apocalyptic world devoid of humans. Woven from hessian, with round, thick-lensed eyes like dilating apertures, the mute, nimble character of #9 outfoxed a metal, skeletoned cat-like contraption. Acker made, in a mere few minutes of screen time, a gripping and arresting movie. In the spring of 2006, “9” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. The winner that year was the wrenching “The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation,” an autobiographical indictment of his own father by animator John Canemaker. Each of the films is a wonderful reminder of the power, diversity and talent illustrated in this regrettably underseen, compact form of filmmaking.
Tim Burton was enamored by the university project, brought in director Timur Bekmambetov, among others, as a fellow producer, and Acker embarked on a feature length edition. Sadly, the protracted version of “9″ gives the impression of a movie stretched by a thin, overly familiar narrative. The entirely new back story is recognizable: A well-meaning government scientist designs the Great Machine; the machine turns evil. Armageddon rages in a grainy newsreel montage. Afterwards, in this barren land, a small band of the numbered rag dolls remains, under constant attack from the spindly creatures devised by the machine. Led by a crotchety, de facto leader (the sonorous Christopher Plummer as #1), some are holed up, simply hiding out. A few intrepid stitchpunks embrace a more proactive approach to toppling their hunters; circumstance places #9 in the latter camp. Each of the rag dolls, as it is explained by the deceased scientist’s hologram, was created as components of his “soul.” But their individual personalities don’t resonate strongly in the 79-minute film. The script by Pamela Pettler — who wrote both Burton’s “The Corpse Bride” and Gil Kenan’s “Monster House” – fails to provide the “stitchpunks” with identities past a basic, surface level. The character of #9 is now voiced with earnest nativity by Elijah Wood as though the creatures wish to decimate his beloved shire.
The visuals remain engaging. Sunlight is shrouded by a sky suspended like a coal-choked tarp. The dolls huddle under a military helmet, scurrying cleverly for shelter in the rubble. Filmed from intriguing perspectives, a flexing feline beast peers menacingly for its quarry. Acker also has a skill for creating finely choreographed, atmospheric action sequences.
The newcomer lists the Brothers Quay and Jan Švankmajer as major influences. They are animators of unsettling, phantasmagoric stop-motion films. Detritus packs their miniature sets, and taxidermy and lifeless dolls permeate their work; there’s an air of pungent decay. They execute intricate guerilla filmmaking. Comparatively, Acker feels like the most reserved member of the Tim Burton Revolutionary Knitting Circle. While he resourcefully incorporates skeletons and inanimate objects into his mise-en-scène, and you definitely see the framework of his inspirational gurus, it doesn’t feel creepy. It’s orderly, not edgy. The Quays and Švankmajer flesh out nightmares; Acker specializes in dreams. (A sequence of resurrecting souls is lovingly realized.) He’s a recognizable talent with a recommendable feature-film debut. But, for his next project, hopefully Acker will unhinge his imagination in a plumper story.