It's safe to say that every film starts out small, and that many of them then end up staying small for any number of reasons. Beyond that, only a lucky few make the leap to feature-length, and even then, it doesn't always turn out for the best. Saw was once a mere fraction of itself, a grimy and gritty little morality play unlikely to spawn a seriously successful franchise that just won't die. The minds behind Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow dedicated themselves for years to creating a low-budget trailer for the film, only to then be granted the chance to flesh out their pulpy serial throwback with millions more. Wouldn't you know it, District 9 just became the summer's least expected blockbuster to the tune of $100 million, and even that was born of a like-minded showcase reel.
And then there's Shane Acker, whose original short for 9 was a wordless little post-apocalyptic breath-taker that rightfully earned itself an Academy Award nomination in 2005. Once an expanded take garnered the support of a recognizable voice cast and producers like Tim Burton, his vision was well on its way to the big screen, and all things considered, it's a small wonder that this small wonder made it through the Hollywood machine with most (though not all) of its mystique intact... In the wake of a war between men that eventually led to their destruction at the hands of the machines they built (isn't that always the case?), 9 -- a sentient rag-doll of sorts, eventually voiced by Elijah Wood -- awakes to find his dead creator at his feet, a rubble-strewn landscape at his door and a couple of predatory robots lingering around to pick those like him, including the authoritative 1 (Christopher Plummer), the probing 2 (Martin Landau), the silent 3 and 4, the meek 5 (John C. Reilly), the unstable 6 (Crispin Glover), the stealthy 7 (Jennifer Connelly) and the brutish 8 (Fred Tatasciore). When one of their number (pardon me) is captured, 9's most noble intentions of rescue end up endangering the group and then empowering them to stop an evil they had unwittingly unleashed.
If ever there was a greater pity that a film wasn't exhibited in 3-D, I wouldn't know it. Acker's fluid direction and the ever-striking visual style on display would seem to welcome such an embellishment -- and the intangible oomph it would carry. But even without the gimmick, the resourcefulness of these creatures, the ruins that they find themselves surrounded in, the escalating menace that they endure at the claws of some wickedly-designed creatures ... they all come to exceedingly vivid life, enough (unfortunately) to make that pesky "name cast" all the more distracting (okay, they're not that distracting). Much credit is due to the foley team for making an audio environment every bit as immersive as the visuals. Selling us on the humanity of an ensemble with shutters for eyes is no small feat; making sure we hear every scrape when they squint is a nice touch.
Yet each character is saddled with one mere character trait apiece to somewhat irritating effect, and while it is unfortunate to see the mystery behind these creatures and their purpose in this perilous world come to such an over-explained end about an hour in, at the hands of maybe too well-worn a ploy of imagination, the film does us the courtesy of having its credits roll by at the seventy-minute mark anyway. For the most part, 9 makes a gorgeous and often thrilling case for its own feature-length existence, and at least when it decides to overstay its welcome, it doesn't do so any longer than the time it would take to instead watch, say... a particularly nifty short film.
(Oh, and parents? If the PG-13 rating for "violence and scary images" didn't convince you, then I can only hope this does: while it is a cartoon, this is not for young kids. Unless you're all for treating nightmares. In that case, go nuts.)