Shane Acker's 9 is destined to become a cult-classic, yet it probably won't make any money at the box office this time around. Even though the film has big name producers attached to it -- including goth icon Tim Burton -- it is too delightfully strange to find a major market to make back its $33 million budget.
The history of 9 is far better than its plot. Acker first released the film as a short, but working with producers Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted) managed to get a full-length made through Focus Features and Toronto-based animation studio Starz Animation.
The film's narrative revolves around a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has wiped itself out through the creation of super-intelligent technology. Before this apocalypse, a lone scientist -- who helped to create the technology that destroyed the world, naturally -- creates nine "stitchpunk" beings using science and alchemy. Each of these dolls are imbued with a little bit of the professor's soul and each embody a different aspect of the professor. In this way, he lives on in his creations.
It gets pretty hokey after this. The story and plotting are decidedly mediocre and the dialogue often drifts into the outright bad category. As cruel as it sounds, the interactions between characters seem more like something out of a teenager's secret screenplay than a professional film.
9's major strength is in its visuals. The film is gorgeous and offers an exciting feast for the eyes. At the same time, this is a problem: Acker's influences, including the Brothers Quay and Jan Å vankmajer, are not really popular in North America. These influences are felt in the character's design and movement. 9 (Elijah Wood) and his like compatriots have a human fluidity, as opposed to the chittering clockwork creations that try to end the stitchpunk's lives. While beautiful, most audiences will definitely be off-put.
For comparison's sake, it's worth looking at the other long-standing animated film that was its director's labour of love -- the infamous flop Delgo. The two film's backgrounds are quite similar in many respects: each one features an animator taking on the big budget studios and producing their own work. Where Delgo featured awful character designs, stilted animation and out-right shameful casting, 9 is different. There is quality to be found here, but that quality is only visual.
It's a frustrating experience at times -- very rarely, if ever, has North American animation aspired to produce such stylistic work. Acker's story ends up working in the short form, but not in the long.
Like anything associated with Tim Burton, 9 will be popular amongst his fan base. Expect rag dolls shaped like the characters at your local Spencer's Gifts and D-Tox, with hoodies featuring the gawky 9's moon-shaped eyes flooding local high schools.
Ultimately, it's hard to say whether or not the film deserves to find financial or critical success. The creation of the film is in the proud, fierce spirit of independent animation. It isn't that good artistically, yet aesthetically is at least three years ahead of its time -- in the best possible way.