9, Shane Acker, 79 mins, (12A)<br/>Tales from the Golden Age, Cristian Mungiu, Ioana Uricaru, Hanno Hofer, Constantin Popescu, 131 mins, (12A)

Script-writing by numbers for the boggle-eyed little figures
Click to follow

Considering the limitless visual splendours that digital animation can put on the big screen, it's about time there were some more cartoons that weren't intended to sell tie-in plastic toys to young children. That's why the bleak and eerie opening scenes of 9 are so refreshing.

There's no way they're suitable for Buzz Lightyear fans. It's just a pity that the later scenes are too vapid to be suitable for their parents, either.

The galling thing is that 9 is just a couple of rewrites away from being a cult classic. Co-produced by Tim Burton, and expanded from an Oscar-nominated short film made by its director, Shane Acker, the cartoon often looks breathtaking. It's set in a dust-choked, rubble-strewn, post-apocalyptic future, which is actually more of a post-apocalyptic past: one of the film's distinguishing touches is that although the human race has been wiped out by giant robots, it appears that Armageddon occurred during the 1940s.

The only survivors, if that's an appropriate term, are nine loosely stitched sackcloth dolls with numbers painted on their backs. The hero, voiced by Elijah Wood, is number 9. None of them knows who made them or how they came to life. They only know that they have to stay hidden from the mechanical predators that lurk in the wasteland.

These monsters, like the film's setting, are terrifying and original creations, so it's disappointing when the story that's been woven around them unravels into a pile of drab loose ends. Essentially, what happens is that the dolls have an argument; they scamper off to a new location; some monsters pounce on them; and then it's back to arguing again. Once this pattern has been repeated several times, the film ends with the kind of vague mysticism which seems forgivably exotic when it turns up in a Japanese anime, but which just seems like a cop-out in an American cartoon.

Another flaw is the screenplay's lack of sparkle. It probably doesn't help that the characters all have numbers instead of names, but when they start shouting, "9! 2! 6!", at each other, it's less like a science-fiction epic than a bingo evening. The best way to appreciate the fantastic spectacle might be to watch the film with earplugs in, and imagine your own dialogue. It could only be an improvement.

How do you follow a harrowing, Palme d'Or-winning issue drama? In the case of Cristian Mungiu, the Romanian writer-director of 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, the answer was to shrug off every expectation which must have been weighing on his shoulders, and to make a much lighter film, co-directed by a few of his friends.

Tales from the Golden Age is a portmanteau of five comic anecdotes – some farcical, some wry – each detailing the contortions that ordinary Romanians had to go through in order to survive the last years of Ceausescu's regime. A village prepares for the passing of an official motorcade, a newspaper doctors its front-page photos to make the premier look taller, a policeman butchers a pig in his flat, two youths hit on a recycling scam, and a driver with a lorryload of chickens realises that he can filch some eggs en route.

As with most portmanteau films, fatigue sets in one or two vignettes before the end. But each story is a piquant short film in its own right. There's also a sense that the title isn't entirely ironic. For all the privation and fear that underpin the Tales, the film is tinged with nostalgia for a simpler time, when everyone knew the authorities were insane, and anyone with enough guts had the chance to outsmart them.

Also Showing: 01/11/2009

Starsuckers (103 mins, 12A)

This post-Michael Moore Brit-documentary could have been streamlined, but it makes some cogent points about the media's obsession with celebrity. Two of its more depressing segments feature a training session for aspiring reality TV stars, and a demonstration of how easy it is to plant fictitious gossip in the UK tabloids.

Dead Man Running (87 mins, 15)

Boredom aside, the main feeling prompted by this poorly shot gangster caper is bewilderment that people are still wasting their energies on hackneyed Guy Ritchie rip-offs. It plods along with so little urgency that it might as well be called Dead Man Dawdling.

The Horseman (94 mins, 18)

Tawdry Ozsploitation revenge thriller. There's plenty of bloody torture, if that's what you're into, but not much plausibility. There's no way the middle-aged anti-hero would keep winning fights with men who are twice his size and half his age.