I'm not going to belabor the point.

Shane Acker's "9" is a visual accomplishment.  No doubt about it.  He's got a great kinetic eye, and real taste as a visual stylist.  He's built a gorgeous ruin of a world here, and his stitchpunk doll people are really haunting.

If that's all you want or need from the film, it certainly delivers.  In an admirable, exciting way.

Now stop reading.

Because the fact that the film is such a confident visual experience is what irritates me the most.  It makes it feel like more of a blown opportunity. 

"9" is the story of a stitchpunk doll person wakes up on a worktable.  An old man is dead there and the doll person, the number "9" stamped on his back, goes out to solve the world.

I think the script lets the film's visual work down in every way, and in the end, what's on the page is so weak that I was left admiring the surface of the film rather than enjoying the substance of it.  And I checked out finally.  The film is all exposition.  Which makes sense, because Acker tried to include as little conversation as possible.  So when he does finally let the characters, talk, each conversation is a variation on this:

"We should go."

"Go?"

"Go."

[more after the jump]

"Go where."

"We should go now.  To the tower."

"Go to the tower?"

"Yes.  The Tower is the Source."

"The Tower is the Source?"

"Yes! Let's go!"

Then they go to the tower.  Then they fight a level boss.  And then they get to go into the room where the next piece of The Secret Of The Existence Of The Nine is hidden.

And then they get the next clue.  So... again:

"We should go."

"Go?"

"Yes.  Go."

"Go where?"

"To the old man's home.  It's the Source."

"The Source?"

"Yes, The Source.  At the old man's home.  Let's go."

So they go to the Old Man's hom.  And then they fight a level boss.

And that's the movie.  That's the rhythm from the moment 9 wakes up without any idea who he is.  Amnesia is the oldest soap opera bullshit trick in the book.  And a lot of this works like you're watching the world's most beautiful video game being played.

The voice cast all seems game for whatever it is Acker was doing, but like I said... maybe 20 minutes of the whole film has dialogue, and most of that is reactive.  They all do what they can with the material, but the film doesn't benefit from their presence because Acker hasn't given them anything to do.

This was a wonderful short film.  There was an obvious command of filmmaking language in that short... it was a director's reel, more than a lot of animation.  Acker seemed to be able to do mood and quirk and character and story.

At feature-length?  Not so much.

I suspect the easiest thing for Acker to set up as an animation director was a feature-length version of the short film that got him to the Academy Awards.  But just because it makes sense as a math equation doesn't mean it's going to add up as art.  "9" is hollow.  It's not a story that needed to be told or that even makes sense as told.  The film's big reveal to the characters is telegraphted to the audience in the film's opening moments, robbing the movie of even perfunctory suspense.  And the payoff is an empty light show like so many empty light shows since the Death Star exploded.  Pretty go boom boom.  Me no care.

I don't want to sound like I hate "9."  I don't.  I would say animation nerds need to see it, and older kids might like how weird and creepy it is.  It's too intense for younger or sensitive kids, though, so be warned.  A lot of the film involves the puppet people being chased and almost torn apart, over and over and over.  I'm not taking Toshi to see it in the theater, and like "Coraline" earlier this year, he won't see it at home, either.  Not yet.

I'm more interested in seeing what Shane Acker can do with a great script now.  I believe that this is a treading-water waste of a first film, but that doesn't negate the fact that this is a filmmaker capable of really compelling moments and images and ideas.  He made the same film twice.  Time to move on.  And that's where I'm interested to see who Shane Acker really is as a filmmaker.

"9" opens in theaters everywhere today.

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