The question really isn’t whether directors Shane Acker’s “9” is a good film or not. The real question is whether American filmgoers are ready for this audacious directorial debut?
The story behind the making of “9” is interesting in its own right. Acker was slowly climbing up the animation ladder thanks in large part to the three shorts he created, “The Hangnail” (1999), “The Astounding Talents of Mr. Grenade” (2003) and, finally, a short version of “9” (2005). The last one earned Acker an Oscar nomination.
Admittedly heavily influenced by stop motion surrealists Jan Svankmayer and the Brothers Quay, the cohesive plotting of the Academy Award nom caught the attention of no less than director/producer Tim Burton. From there, Burton brought in the Russian maverick director Timur Bekmambatov (“Nightwatch,” “Daywatch,” and “Wanted”), and those two convinced Focus Features to finance a full-length "9" feature using an accounting technique called negative-pickup. After 4 ½ years in production, Acker achieved all he had to do to meet the Focus contract, and the film hits the big screen — appropriately — on September 9, 2009 (aka 9/9/9).
Story wise, anyone familiar with “The Matrix” won’t be the slightest bit surprised by “9,” only in this movie both sides have lost. Into this post-apocalyptic universe enters the title character 9 (voiced by Elijah Woods), a living puppet made of cloth, armatures, a bit of science, and some interesting Eastern European alchemy.
Now 9’s purpose isn’t to become a real boy like another famous animated puppet. In fact, at his “birth” he doesn’t truly know what, if any purpose he has. It’s only when he meets the eight others who were built like him, particularly 2 (Martin Landau) and 5 (John C. Reilly) that he starts developing his own reason for existence. Fans of any decent science fiction will have few issues figuring what it is.
That’s about the only real negative, if that’s one, of the film.
Visually, “9” has to be the most stunning experience produced in the U.S. since the first “Toy Story.” That doesn’t mean in the cute and fuzzy department either. Instead, “9” is as revolutionary a tour de force as “Toy Story” was in 1995.
Acker has visual signatures of Svankmayer, the Quays, Jiri Trnka and all those highly Eastern Euro-influenced stop motion masters and successfully translated them into CGI. Adding in his own personal tastes, the Wachowskis and other masters of post-apocalyptic settings, the film carries its own gritty integrity while adding the flawless movement of well-rendered CGI.
In plain English, the “wow” factor of this film's graphics and sequences are truly off the meter. Every time you think Acker can’t do any better, he succeeds in topping himself again and again and again.
This still leaves the question though of how Americans will take to this movie. Quite frankly, it will probably be a huge hit in Europe, where Acker’s aforementioned influences are revered as minor saints. It would not be surprising if it does well in Japan, which has its share of successful stop-motion mavericks such as Kihachiro Kawamoto. Even Canada, which reveres Norman McLaren, will probably go for it.
Yet here in the U.S. of A., the unfortunate truth is, by American standards, “9” is graphically at least five years ahead of its time, a circumstance Burton should already be quite familiar with this. After all, he produced “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “The Corpse Bride,: two animated films which only earned acceptance years after their original release. And when it comes to Acker’s feature-length debut, it should be filed along with those two films as well as “The Iron Giant.”
Not that this is a totally bad thing. “Nightmare” and “Giant” are now accepted as animated classics. Their respective directors, Henry Selick and Brad Bird, now get the kudos they so deserve. “Bride’s” director, Miller, will probably have it in the future too.
So will Acker…in about 2015.More on 9
<li><a href=/3793-film-9-may-set-new-animation-standard.html>Film '9' May Set New Animation Standard</a>
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