In telling a story about emotive burlap sacks, writer-director Shane Acker may be on to something. Imagine the possibilities. The burlap sack version of Romeo and Juliet. The burlap sack version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The burlap sack version of Mrs. Doubtfire—wait: I think they already made that one. Anyway, you see my point. I kid, but there is of course some precedent for tales of cloth imbued with something like humanity, from The Veleveteen Rabbit to The Muppets Take Manhattan. Acker's CGI-animated film 9 (scripted by Pamela Pettler from Acker's story) takes off from his 2004 Oscar-nominated animated short in populating a post-apocalyptic wasteland with doll people who ironically dedicate themselves to restoring lost humanity.
The world of 9 is the result of a war between machines and the people who created them (headline: "Machines Turn Against Us!"). Though there's a definite shorthand to this shopworn notion of corrupted technology, fables of human self-destruction are unfortunately timely. Having given up the ghost (literally, as it turns out), humanity has passed the baton, from the well-meaning Scientist (Alan Oppenheimer) responsible for our demise to his last hope: nine doll children cobbled together from scraps. The numbered beings are a sum of each other's parts, and in order to affect a change, they must learn to put aside their fears and throw in for a common cause. Leading the charge is 9 (Elijah Wood), whose zippered front—better even than a heart on his sleeve—suggests his openness. The older generation (whatever that means to a burlap sack), by its nature, proves hesitant or outright resistant. 9's initial mentor 2 (Martin Landau) offers, "Some things in this world are better left where they lie," and their well-entrenched leader 1 (Christopher Plummer) denounces "dark science" (a.k.a. new ideas) and asking questions.
Still, 9 refuses to accept defeat as his friends get yanked away across the vast No Man's Land ("the Emptiness") that used to be our home. Resolutely independent, he runs on hope and traffics in inspiration, and he finds kindred spirits in the nervous but brave 5 (John C. Reilly), sensitive thinker 6 (Crispin Glover) and acrobatic warrior 7 (Jennifer Connelly). Though survival-themed, the dolls' communal quest for the arcane knowledge of their existence and their salvation brings them face-to-face with mortality, at its scariest and ultimately its most serene (the release of death). Acker's archetypal handling of death, from a doll corpse set adrift with a coin on its face to spirits wafting skyward provides the film with some of its most memorable imagery. But the film's designs and moments of visual artistry cannot entirely compensate for the thinness of its narrative construction: yes, the 79-minute 9 moves at a good clip, but one senses Acker stretching his eleven-minute short rather than containing bigger ideas and characters who have taken on lives of their own: 9 too clearly puts style over substance.
Given that two of the film's producers are Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, some might simply say, "Duh." Despite a score by Burton's go-to composer Danny Elfman, Acker's grotty aesthetic leans more toward Bekmambetov: 9 is weird, yes, but also bleak, martial (the dolls adapt scissors into swords) and largely monochromatic, the color of choice being sepia. In a nicely lyrical passage, Pettler and Acker allow the just-so sepia shade to dovetail with its cinematic ancestor. Reveling in a success, the heroes pause to enjoy an old vinyl record of Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow." It's a dream the characters don't get to inhabit, meaning 9 is a film aimed at older children and adults. If only it rose to a commensurate level of narrative sophistication, Acker would really have something, but 9 is intriguing enough to keep us guessing where his imagination will take him in future.