The emergent conventional wisdom is correct about this much: 9, the new animated feature expanded by director Shane Acker from his 2005 Oscar-nominated short, has atmosphere, and it has imaginative style, and that is just about it. The plot is, by all means, a bit of a shambles. Longtime readers have already guessed that I don't have much of a problem with that. Sometimes, a movie needs to have a rigorous screenplay and magnificently compelling story, and sometimes it just needs to be absolutely goddamn beautiful to look at. 9 is absolutely goddamn beautiful and there's no indication that Acker ever wanted it to be any more than that. One can respond to this in one of two ways: either by fuming about how much the film falls apart as a narrative, and thereby depriving oneself of the very rich pleasures 9 offers as a masterpiece of design; or one can get over the idiotic, Hollywoodised construction that movies must first and above all be about their stories. But that's an old rant for me, and I'll drop it.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world that is pretty clearly the ruins of Paris, or at least some kind of alternate-universe Paris where they print newspapers in English, 9 opens with an act of creation: a small man-shaped figure (maybe 8 inches, maybe a touch more) stitched out of burlap with little electric eyes and a zipper running up his abdomen is born into a dusky backroom, where the man who assembled him lies dead on the floor. Leaving the stillness of the interior, the burlap man wanders outside into a world just as still and silent, although arguably a touch better lit; and there it is that he finds another figure not unlike himself, who cobbles together a voice (that of Elijah Wood, but the star-packed cast is largely just here for the hell of it) for him out of a broken talking doll, and who give him his name: he is 9, as shown by the painted number on the back, the kindly stranger is 2, and there are more like them hiding somewhere in the ruins.

2 doesn't get to show 9 where that somewhere is, because they're immediately set upon by a fucking brilliant bit of nightmare fuel: a robot that has been roughly hacked together out of metal parts and a dog skeleton, with one glaring light poking through one of the skull's eye sockets, and it immediately runs off with 2. A bit later, 9 manages to find his way into a sanctuary where other little men - 1, 5, 6, 8 - live in terror from what they refer to in hushed tones as "The Beast".

It would be pointless to go on from there. The thrust is that 9 is clever and braver than the rest, and he ends up going into the wastes and back again and then back into the wastes, and he also finds 3,4 and 7, hiding not just from The Beast, but also the tyrannic 1. A while later, many explosions have happened. And obviously a poorly tossed-together story that serves as nothing more than a delivery system for explosions and action scenes is nothing to be proud of: on this level, 9 is closer in spirit to the work of Superstar Producer #1, Timur Bekmambetov, than Superstar Producer #2, Tim Burton. At the same time, it's more akin to Burton's work in that the very definite aesthetic that informs the whole film is genuinely unlike anything else you've seen (barring, of course, 9-the-short). Whereas most story-light, action heavy films are content to just look big and busy, 9 is unabashedly fussed-over; every detail of the mise en scène is there because Acker or someone on his design team had a most particular reason for it to be there.

Like all the best post-apocalypse movies - a genre for which I have an abiding weakness - 9 creates its environment through suggestion and hinting around, rather than splashing obvious juice all about everything. Not "what happened" - what happened is given out very frankly, in the form of a '30s style newsreel. But that's a plot issue - something 9 doesn't care much about - while the look and feel of the world, before and after the destruction of humanity - something that 9 cares about very deeply - is created with loveliness and delicacy. This is not a future-shock film; it is a vision of apocalyptic machinery and iron-fisted dictatorships straight out science fiction from 75 years ago (elements of the design owe a palpable debt to the endlessly influential Fleischer Superman cartoons). And the traces of the world we see all serve to reinforce the impression that what we're looking at is the '40s gone wrong, a version of the '40s in which Vichy France became its very own military hellhole maybe. And there are subtle differences all about, suggestion to extent to which this is a hardscrabble world of things being patched out of whatever they can be: the small men are all basically the same design, but made out of different fabrics, apparently whatever their inventor had to hand at the moment. Everything else we see in the film is constructed according to a similarly utilitarian discipline. Me, I'm happy as a clam to get my hands on a movie that lets me play around by observing fine details of design for an hour or more, just as a thought exercise - as always, your mileage may vary.

Then, there's the outstandingly creepy design of two of the film's monsters. The Beast is one; there's also a snakelike burlap creature with a terrifying disembodied doll's head (if you, like me, think that disembodied, broken doll's heads are one of the fucking scariest things ever, you, like me, will probably have 9-themed dreams afterward, and they will not be wholly pleasant). I think I can safely claim that in none of the many horror films I've seen this year has anything been as genuinely nightmarish as some of the horrors in 9, and that alone would be enough to get the film my earnest praise. As it stands, that's just the icing on a very wonderfully stylised cake.