After an exquisitely delicate opening sequence, this post-apocalyptic War of the Worlds-type animation struggles to show us anything new, and ultimately disintegrates as its small story gets stretched beyond breaking point. Too dour for young children and not sophisticated enough for the rest of us, the film also seems unsure of its core audience. Director Shane Acker made a ten-minute version of this idea back in 2005 and picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short for his efforts.
With the help of the master of quirky gothic, Tim Burton, the idea has been extended to feature length, and dialogue added (the original characters didn’t speak) in order to give a star-studded cast some voice work. Sadly the dialogue, story extensions and uniformly flat performances don’t match Acker’s stunning visual design.
Voiced by Elijah Wood, 9 is a cute-as-a-button hand-sown machine (a bit like Dr. Seuss’ Thing 1 or Thing 2 without the hair), who awakes to find his human creator dead on the floor next to a strangely inscribed talisman. Taking the object with him, 9 ventures outside to find Thing 2 (Martin Landau) and a world shattered by a war between humans and machines. The only survivors seem to be a small band of other Things and the last machine – a growling cat-like predator – who steals the talisman in order to help re-start a race of evil mechanised beasts lying dormant in the smoke-stacked regions of the horizon.
After taking the blame for loosing the talisman, which allows the mother of all machines (a red-eyed octopus-like fiend) to come to life, 9 must challenge the leadership of Thing 1 (Christopher Plummer) and then, with the help of and Thing 5 (John C. Reilly) and Thing 7 (Jennifer Connelly), re-capture the talisman and unlock its mystery.
It’s really worth watching Acker’s original animation on the Internet to appreciate the design work of this piece. The combination of visual style, superb sound design and Acker’s dramatic shot choices and editing result in a gripping and moody little tale. In the full-length version these skills are clearly evident in the superbly staged chase sequences with monstrous “steampunk” machines hunting down the sensitive and delicate creatures that are the only link to humanity. In between the action however, the dialogue is frequently woeful. The overarching narrative too becomes increasingly banal with all the mystery crushed out of the story by over-explained backstory. Even at less than 80 minutes the film feels too big for its boots – proving that from little things big things don’t always grow.