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 V.19 No.9 | March 4 - 10, 2010 

Film Review

A Town Called Panic

Plastic playthings spring to life in anarchic anti-Toy Story

Silly Cowboy and Indian have stolen the tractor yet again. This won’t end well.
Silly Cowboy and Indian have stolen the tractor yet again. This won’t end well.

A Town Called Panic

Directed by Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar

Cast: Stéphane Aubier, Bruce Ellison, Vincent Patar

“H.R. Pufnstuf,” “Teletubbies,” “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Yo Gabba Gabba!” Every few years a self-described “kids” show pops up that holds a peculiar, hypnotic appeal for adults—particularly those under the inhaled influence of certain recreational substances. The latest series to add its name to this surrealist list is the oddball Belgian-born creation known as “A Town Called Panic” (or “Panique au village” in its native tongue).

“A Town Called Panic” first appeared as a kids’ show in various French-speaking nations circa 2000. It went on to became a major cult sensation throughout Europe. In America, it has been whispered about in Internet chat rooms and occasionally glimpsed on sites like Atom.com. A clip from “A Town Called Panic” materialized as a highlight of this year’s Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation. Now the “Panic” phenomenon comes into full bloom with an official feature film treatment (complete with subtitles and everything).

The eponymous animated feature sticks with the same basic premise as the series. Our main characters are Cowboy (voiced by writer-director Stéphane Aubier), Indian (Bruce Ellison) and Horse (co-writer/co-director Vincent Patar). Fact No. 1: They are all tiny, molded-plastic toys. Fact No. 2: Horse is the smart one. Fact No. 3: They live together in a house. Fact No. 4: They have various adventures—none of which make much sense. Fact No. 5: They are awesome.

Not to worry. A Town Called Panic isn’t educational in any conventional way. It has far more in common with the stream-of-consciousness improv of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” than with the pedantic point-making of “Sesame Street.” In fact, the plot of this film is largely irrelevant. To wit: It’s Horse’s birthday. Cowboy and Indian don’t know what to get him, so they decide to build him a barbecue pit. Cowboy and Indian order 50 bricks, but they end up getting 50 million bricks. That more or less kicks off the crazed storyline, which rapidly spirals out of control to include Horse’s crush on a piano teacher, a journey to the center of the Earth, a family of thieving mermen and a giant robot penguin filled with mad scientists. Cowboy and Indian run around like hyper-caffienated children, Horse tries to keep a lid on the anarchy, and in the end, nobody learns a damn thing.

In an era of $200 million computer-animated masterpieces, there’s something both refreshing and charming about A Town Called Panic’s junky stop-motion animation. These aren’t like the children’s playthings brought to seamless CGI life in Toy Story. They’re stiff, crudely animated lumps of plastic that wobble from one side of the screen to the other. And yet, A Town Called Panic bursts with all the color and invention of a Michel Gondry music video.

Until now, “A Town Called Panic” has existed as a frenetic fusillade of five-minute shorts. Not surprisingly, it’s difficult to keep up the show’s manic pace when stretched to 70 minutes or so. But A Town Called Panic does an admirable job of keeping jokes, slapstick action and narrative left turns flying at the audience as quickly as possible. This proudly nonsensical loony toon won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who dig it will walk away craving more of the madcap animated action.

 
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