The stop-motion animated cast of the new Belgian feature A Town Called Panic first appeared in a series of five-minute short films (lumped together into fifteen and thirty minute blocks), and I'm not surprised by their popularity; the film is fast-paced, funny, and inventively made. It would also seem to go down much smoother in smaller doses. Panic is short for a feature film but feels much longer, primarily because there is no change in its tempo. What works for five minutes doesn't always play when dragged out to 75, at least not when pitched at the same level.
The film's universe is populated by a cast of plastic toy figurines. Three of them share a house: Cowboy (voiced by co-director Stéphane Aubier), Indian (Bruce Ellison), and Horse (co-director Vincent Patar). Cowboy and Indian accidently forget Horse's birthday, and in their panic to order bricks to build him a barbecue, they inadvertently over-order by several million. Hijinks ensue.
A Town Called Panic utilizes and odd but enjoyable style--of animation, and of storytelling. The picture has a charmingly homemade feel, with the stop-motion figurines hopping about on their flat stands, replicating the tone of an imaginative kid playing with his mismatched toys. It's got a peculiar, off-balanced sense of humor, and the scenes are busy and frequently funny (particularly Horse's birthday party, which goes wonderfully out of control).
The trouble is the relentless, unvarying pitch and volume begins to get wearying. Much of the dialogue is delivered in what amounts to a scream (the title is a fairly accurate description of most of the characters' state of mind), and the speed and tenor of the material is built to match. The picture loses steam in its second act, in spite of an increase in the pace and the slapstick; it burns off much of its running time basically running in circles.
I can't undersell the energy and inventiveness of the stop-motion animation; the movie is a wonder to behold, to watch wind up and spin around. Unfortunately, it enters the marketplace on the heels of Fantastic Mr. Fox, a stop-motion animation tale with a narrative to match the gee-whiz power of its visuals. There's much to like in A Town Called Panic, but it doesn't go much of anywhere once it has laid out its style and premise; it is an ingenious but monotonous piece of work.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.