Originally conceived as something between a tie-in product and a full-length advertisement for the Matrix movie trilogy, the animated-shorts anthology The Animatrix quickly took on a life of its own, thanks to the increasingly high profile of Japanese animation in America and the top talents Matrix writer-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski enlisted for the project. The Wachowskis scripted half of The Animatrix's nine installments, which flesh out the backstory and milieu of their Matrix world. But they turned the direction over to such singular visionaries as Peter Chung (Aeon Flux), Shinichirô Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop), Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust), and Mahiro Maeda (Blue Submarine No. 6), in the process guaranteeing that their side project would not only avoid the usual animation-collection filler dreck, but also be unprecedented in its diversity and innovation. Much of The Animatrix is still informed by the Matrix movies' cybergoth/kung-fu aesthetic, but the styles and storytelling techniques vary widely, often within individual shorts. Case in point: Watanabe's "Kid's Story," which follows the effects of the Matrix's illusory world on an alienated skateboarder (voiced by Clayton Watson, who reprises the role in The Matrix Reloaded as a wide-eyed worshipper of Keanu Reeves' character Neo). Zooming through visual styles from hyper-realism to Bill Sienkiewicz-esque nightmare surrealism to a Waking Life-like mix between the two, "Kid's Story" sets a high visual standard which most of its companion pieces meet amply. The other overt Reloaded tie-in, "Final Flight Of The Osiris," was directed by Andy Jones, animation director of 2001's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It sports Final Fantasy's ultra-realistic CGI, while Kawajiri's "World Record" features hideously distorted characters that make Chung's angular Aeon Flux-like stylings look normal by comparison. (Anime detractors needn't worry, incidentally. There's not a big-eyed brat or a spiky-haired teen in sight, and The Animatrix looks nothing like conventional anime.) Visually, the collection comes across as an animator's dream project, a lush playground of the senses where no corners have been cut, and where imagination rather than budget is the limiting factor. The scripts, by comparison, are less innovative and less outré. Maeda's two-part piece "The Second Renaissance" simply spells out the process by which machines took over the Matrix world. Many of the other installments feature extraordinary people who become aware of the Matrix surrounding them, while a few (most notably Chung's daring "Matriculated") deal with escapees and how they live. While the actual Matrix movies have embraced a dark-but-shiny comic-book good-over-evil aesthetic, The Animatrix is virtually all grimmer and grittier. Its characters are peripheral to the Matrix trilogy, and there's no guarantee that they'll survive, let alone triumph. But by establishing the lethality and bleakness of the Wachowskis' world outside the radius of their central heroes' reach, The Animatrix raises the stakes on The Matrix, and gives it a bit of the depth it lacks. To some degree, The Animatrix is a logical extension of the Wachowskis' vision: Like their main project, this sideline is more style than substance, but also more style than its competitors can bring to the table. The Animatrix lacks some of the Matrix movies' punch, but none of their panache.