Preceded by an obnoxious ad campaign (with generic hard-rawk squeal on the soundtrack, and the promise that this is “not your little brother’s animated movie”), Shane Acker’s 9 comes to theaters with several strikes against. Its big-name mentor-producers (Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov) have made a specialty of empty spectacles and writer Pamela Pettler is a trafficker in Clueless episodes and the decidedly under-plotted Corpse Bride. The film itself is a grey and grim thrill ride packed full of kiddie morality lessons and creepy frightenings, as though Steven Spielberg had induced the Brothers Quay to create a summer blockbuster.

You can still see the grain of a fascinating fable inside Acker’s feature version of his 11-minute short, nominated for an Oscar in 2006. It circulated among the people that matter in Hollywood and blew enough of them away that they threw some millions of dollars and a fistful of name voice actors in Acker’s direction. He has expanded his vision of a post-apocalyptic world inhabited only by some small, rag doll-like creatures scrabbling in the rubble, hunted by giant, clanking, exterminator robots that have already polished off humanity. Unfortunately, this infusion of cash and talent still left Acker a few ideas short of a full-fledged film, in much like District 9, another fascinating sci-fi short blown up to feature length that exhausted its promise well before the conclusion.

Acker’s vision is fully realized in a visual sense, at least. The tiny, hand-stitched, and numeral-identified dolls are floppy and forlorn, their unevenly-packed stuffing appealing to everybody’s inner five-year-old. The landscape they traverse is a simulacrum of a 20th-century bombed-out European city center, surrounded by fields of World War I-era barb-wire-encrusted slit trenches. Abandoned factories and rusted weaponry evoke the nightmares of an earlier age, the H.G. Wellesian imagineers of civilization-snuffing machine armies and gas attacks.

When doll number 9 is brought to life at the start of the film, the human species has been long since vanquished, the story of its demise sketched out in a scratchy newsreel found and preserved by 9’s fellow dolls.. A hyper-intelligent machine intelligence designed to serve humanity (aren’t they all?) was corrupted into a tool of conquest by a dictator whose stony visage and quasi-Nazi propaganda design scheme is straight from a 1930s’ news photo montage. After helping to wage war on other countries, the machine turned its weapons (War of the Worlds-style tripods mounted with gatling guns and firing poisonous gas shells) on all humans. Seemingly the last one to succumb was the scientist who created the numbered dolls, dying just before 9 comes to life.

Exactly how the scientist intended the dolls to save the world is never quite spelled out. 9 evokes a palpable sense of melancholy and danger in its early scenes, as 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood, again playing a little guy on a quest in a dark land), wanders the ruins and meets up with the scientist’s other dolls. Each of the dolls, from the sleek and speedy warrior 7 (Jennifer Connelly) to the cantankerous leader 1 (Christopher Plummer) and the foggily imbalanced 6 (Crispin Glover), is impressively humanized, with delicate shadings of personality and emotions that Robert Zemeckis and even the Pixar designers should be studying. Theirs is a grimy cuteness. When an accident awakens the machine — which gears up for war on the dolls, creating hybridized killing creatures out of battlefield wreckage — their fear nearly makes the screen tremble.

The problem with 9, then, has little to do with empathizing with Acker’s creations. It is instead with the hoops he makes them jump through. The apocalypse has come, and these tiny, frail creatures of junk metal and rough-stitched cloth already have their work cut out for them just to survive. But Pettler’s sketchy screenplay insists on shuttling them through innumerable rounds of dangerous encounters, the dialogue playing endless variations on “We have to go back for him” and “What are you so frightened of?”

It goes without saying that there will be multiple massive showdowns, near-escapes, acts of valor, tough choices for 9 to make, and moments of false hope. Although 9 seems at first willing to take its time and lure its audience into a moody, gloaming world, by the end, it’s just a cynical — if fantastically drawn — action movie designed to throw a quick scare into the kids a little too old for Pixar but not quite ready for R-rated action.

Maybe the next visionary and buzz-worthy sci-fi short can stay just that.

RATING 4 / 10