Early in Shane Acker's computer-animated debut feature 9, a diminutive anthropomorphic whatsit with wooden hands, copper fingers, and the titular numeral emblazoned on his chest awakens to the lifeless body of his human creator and sets forth into a decimated industrial landscape — all twisted metal and smokestacks — that calls to mind London after the Blitz.
Like a post-apocalyptic Pinocchio, #9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) encounters some like-minded (and similar-looking) fellow travelers, each duly numbered, 1 through 8, in the order they were created. The Dr. Pangloss-y #1 (Christopher Plummer) is the self-appointed leader, suspicious of outsiders and potential threats to his authority; #2 (Martin Landau) is the kindly inventor who welcomes #9 into the fold; #5 (John C. Reilly) is a loyal, selfless lieutenant; #7 (Jennifer Connelly) is the token she-whatsit; and so on. For good measure, there's even a raving fanatic, #6 (who else but Crispin Glover?), given to manic, ink-blot drawings, and a cleaver-wielding goombah, #8, who, for reasons never fully explained, looms as large as, well, two times four.
Probably the strangest animated feature to appear since Coraline, albeit far less varied in mood and style, 9 was expanded by Acker (with screenwriter Pamela Pettler) from his 2004 Oscar-nominated short film of the same name. Tim Burton came on board as a producer (along with Night Watch and Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov), and there is an obvious touch of Burtonia to the movie's dystopian vision, with nods in the direction of Czech animator Jan Švankmajer and the late Polish painter/photographer Zdzisaw Beksiski as well. The result is never as gripping in narrative terms — a well-worn litany of dystopian-future chestnuts — as it is visually, but Acker keeps things moving briskly for the movie's 70-odd minutes, and pulls off the trickier feat of establishing distinct personalities for his monochromatic, look-alike characters, who ultimately have more in common with the functional men of war in a '50s B-movie than with the plush-toy-ready denizens of most American animated fare.
Long before "Over the Rainbow" finds its way onto the soundtrack, we know we're not in Kansas anymore. Mankind, it seems, has gone the way of the dodo, wiped out in a Terminator-style war of hyper-intelligent machines. (Newsreel flashbacks suggest a fascistic regime that exalted metal over flesh.) The machines themselves are still around, busy making other machines in their own image — a cavalcade of gruesome droids with glowing red nerve centers and flailing metallic tentacles that could have crawled out of H.R. Giger's erector set. One of them, known only as the Beast, ferries #2 off to certain doom, setting the movie's things-on-a-mission plot into motion; another, arguably Acker's piece de résistance, is a horrid, scissor-handed serpent with a doll's face and a belly into which it sews its victims.
Although valiant #9 and his modified marionette brethren are the ostensible heroes of Acker's tale, the director himself seems secretly to be siding with his ever-more-nightmarishly-detailed, freakazoidal contraptions, who could wipe the floor with WALL-E's showtune-loving carcass. Collectively, they give 9 the feeling of a perversely fascinating ballet mécanique — a movie that literally expends with humans in the way that Hollywood blockbusters have been figuratively doing for years.