By CHRISTY LEMIRE
Los Angeles — Despite their roughhewn appearance, the resourceful rag dolls in "9'' obviously were crafted with great love and care, both by the scientist who made them in the film and the mastermind behind them in real life, director Shane Acker.
If only as much complex thought had gone into the script.
The animation is so breathtaking in its originality, so weird and wondrous in its detail, you wish there were more meat to the screenplay from Pamela Pettler, who previously wrote "Monster House."
Based on Acker's animated short of the same name, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2006, "9'' follows a group of creatures who represent the last vestige of humanity in a post-apocalyptic world. It's set in the future after a war between mankind and machines but eerily resembles Europe after World War II, with its sepia tones blanketing the decimated surroundings in danger and fear. (Parents, don't be fooled: It may look like a cute and clever cartoon, but "9'' is genuinely frightening.)
9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) awakens to find no people are left, but there are a few others like him: tiny, fabric dolls stitched together coarsely but sturdily, with lenses for eyes. (As in "WALL-E," the eyes convey a lot more emotion than you might imagine.) It's easy to see why Tim Burton was drawn to "9'' and wanted to help get it made as a producer, along with "Wanted" director Timur Bekmambetov: the mixture of darkness and whimsy, the childlike and the fantastic, is reminiscent of Burton's signature aesthetic. And yet, Acker has a vision all his own.
The dolls have numbers on their backs signifying who they are and the order in which they were created. They include 1 (Christopher Plummer), the priestly, rigid leader; 2 (Martin Landau), an aging but feisty inventor; 5 (John C. Reilly), who's loyal but afraid of everything; and 7 (Jennifer Connelly), a brave and butt-kicking warrior. Appropriately, Crispin Glover provides the voice of the group's misfit artist, 6. There are also 3 and 4, mute twins who are experts on history, and the brutish 8 (Fred Tatasciore), who looks like the Michelin Man and serves as 1's enforcer.
From there, "9'' follows an episodic, almost video game-like format. The curious 9 picks up an ornate piece of metal, sticks it in a corresponding hole and inadvertently jump-starts a villainous contraption composed of a giant red eye at the center and myriad metal tentacles. He and the other dolls must then scurry for their lives — even though they don't yet know the whole story of their purpose on this planet — as a series of equally menacing monsters tries to pick them off, one by one.
About halfway in, you realize how thin this expanded story really is, even though it's always dazzling to watch. It's intense and nearly relentless, except for a brief respite in which "9'' pays a lovely homage to "The Wizard of Oz."
Acker isn't taking us over the rainbow, but he has brought us someplace daring and new, and he makes you anxious to see what other destinations he has in mind.
"9," a Focus Features release, is rated PG-13 for violence and scary images. Running time: 79 minutes. Three stars out of four.