A Town Called Panic
A bizarre little ‘Town’ well worth visiting
Every now and then, the movies cough up something so unusual, so bizarrely and confidently itself, that you’re willing to overlook the flaws, which in any case tend to be those of enthusiasm and/or lack of money. I’m thinking of oddities like 1982’s cult film “Forbidden Zone’’ or 2008’s multi-culti cartoon “Sita Sings the Blues.’’ Let us now add to the roster “A Town Called Panic,’’ which is from Belgium and suggests a fusion of “Toy Story’’ and “Fantastic Mr. Fox’’ as conceived by a pair of 10-year-old boys suffering from raging ADHD and an overdose of maple syrup.
The boys are in fact grown men - Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, two animators in their mid-40s - and their movie’s a work of extreme stop-motion whimsy in which the characters are played by the kind of plastic figurines most of us outgrew when “Star Wars’’ hit. Given enough time scouring weekend flea markets, you could have made this movie. But you didn’t.
This feature version is a 75-minute expansion of the “Town Called Panic’’ shorts that have played on French TV since 2000 and have since been dubbed into English by the folks at Aardman; you can easily find them on YouTube. As in the shorts, the main characters are Cowboy (voiced by Aubier), Indian (Bruce Ellison), and Horse (Patar). They’re housemates in a little tabletop country village, and Horse is easily the smartest and most chill of the trio. Cowboy’s the dumbest; Indian just thinks he’s smart, which probably means he’s the most dangerous.
The stop-motion is intentionally rough, the perspectives skewed and mismatched. There’s an anarchic dollhouse feel to the whole movie - a sense of manic but focused afterschool play using whatever’s in the toy closet. Best of all, the movie’s funny: Indian and Cowboy decide to build Horse a backyard barbecue for his birthday but end up ordering five million bricks over the Internet rather than 50; this eventually leads to a journey to the Earth’s molten core, a trio of obnoxious fish-men and their mother, giant robot penguins controlled by snowball-obsessed mad scientists, and Horse’s thwarted romance with the local music teacher (also a horse and voiced serenely by Jeanne Balibar). It could happen.
Aubier and Patar’s comic timing is impeccable and their way with a silly voice is to be admired. I guess it’s too much to hope they can keep the movie spinning for 75 minutes, and they don’t - audience fatigue sets in around the 60-minute mark. Some of the subsidiary characters, like a farmer named Steven (Benoît Poelvoorde) who shouts his dialogue at top volume, wear out their welcome. “Panic’’ keeps threatening to tumble off the backyard fence into the merely clever. For some audiences, it will.
Others (children, grown-ups, it doesn’t matter) will sit there slack-jawed and happy, recalling miniature melodramas of their own lazy afternoons. “A Town Called Panic’’ is a proudly Calvinist work - I mean the comic strip character, not the philosopher - that understands the delights of deep play.