If I wasn't impatient (not to mention lazy), I might've tried to be an animator. Of course, films like Up are great because they have great stories and engaging characters and top-notch performances, but I also love watching an animated film just to study the craft of the animation itself. I don't know that I find myself drawn to stop-motion, but the idea that stop-motion is the most meticulous type of animation (lacking the complete imaginative freedom of a blank piece of paper and without any of the advantages of CG) is always hanging over my thoughts whenever I watch a film done in that style.
One of 2009's major animated films (and there were many -- it was a great year for animated features) was Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar's A Town Called Panic. Adapted from their TV show of the same name, the film follows three hapless heroes named Horse, Cowboy and Indian on a series of ridiculous, almost illogical adventures that take them to the center of the earth and back again. It's a rare occasion, because I'm usually too busy, but for some reason I ended up watching the film twice, and I had two distinctly different experiences.
At the very least, Aubier and Patar's world is a stunner. Each one of the movie's many settings looks great from both a technical and creative standpoint, and the various inhabitants of each one give the world heaps of unique flavor. I can definitively say I have not seen a waffle vending machine before ("Clean up your waffle!") or a horse driving a pig and donkey home from music school to heavy metal. And those are just the tiny details; the film gets bigger as it goes along, introducing more and more ridiculous sights as it progresses. In particular, I liked the trio of petulant, child-like scientists who trawl an icy tundra in a giant metal penguin that scoops up perfect snowballs with its skullcap and flippers them at far-off targets. Even more importantly, Aubier and Patar are masterful comedic animators, staging scenes with the verve of a good Looney Tunes cartoon. The sight of Horse inflating his living room after it's been flattened or village neighbor Steven enthusiastically eating his breakfast are expertly timed and vividly illustrated by the directors' veritable army of plastic figurines, but even the way Horse's ridiculously-shaped yellow car tilts and leans is inherently funny.
Sadly, as a story, the film falters. The first time through, I was amused by the seemingly endless stream-of-consciousness creativity Aubier and Patar are able to dish out, but the second time, I couldn't convince myself that the film had a journey worthy of the longer format (or, really, a plot at all). Cowboy and Indian set the ball rolling by purchasing bricks to build a barbecue for Horse as a birthday present, but the chain of events that follows never offers any sort of unifying central conflict, and the movie feels like two episodes (one about Horse's birthday, and one about Horse's house being stolen) taped together, seasoned with a series of sketches. It certainly builds in scale, but even when the stakes seem massive, it's hard to shake the feeling the film meandered to that point in the narrative. A Town Called Panic might not have the DNA for any sort of emotional or serious intellectual depth, and I'm not arguing that it should, but it does need more of a driving force behind it; when a 75-minute movie feels slow on a second viewing, there's something wrong.
All in all, A Town Called Panic is a true mixed bag. It took me twice to feel the need to really criticize the film, but there was definitely a twinge of disappointment at the film's limited momentum. At the same time, I just like watching it; it's wholly possible you haven't lived until you've seen Steven's elaborate gambit to get the fish people out of his house (it involves a conveyor belt, and an incredibly unusual projectile). If only the show were availabe in the United States, maybe I could enjoy Aubier and Patar's imagination without the need for a long-form story; it's almost paradoxical how such inventive people could create such a wonderful set of characters in such a great place, and be short on big ideas for what to do with it.
Zeitgeist's cover artwork for A Town Called Panic isn't exactly a triumph of design, but the film is so weird I doubt they could do a better job of crafting a cover that makes any sense. The back cover is much less cluttered and forced than the front cover, and I am pleased to see that there is not only a nice image on the inside front cover, but that the disc also comes with a nice booklet running down the characters and containing a note about the short film "Obsessive Compulsive" (contained on the disc in the Special Features). A postcard promoting The Short Films of The Quay Brothers is also included.
The Video and Audio
A Town Called Panic gets a spotless-looking 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that captures the titular town of Panic with just the right amount of fine detail (I hate to say it, but the figurines of Cowboy and Indian aren't that pretty in close-up). No complaints.
A French Dolby Digital 5.1 track packs a surprise amount of surround punch for an animated film. My guess would be that Aubier and Patar amped up the mixing to emphasize the comedy, but for whatever reason, it struck me as surprisingly well-done when I was listening to it. English subtitles are provided.
The centerpiece here is "La Fabrique De Panique" (54:51), which focuses as much on the directors and their career as it does Panic the film. Call me crazy, because the documentary covers the kinds of bases I'd want a documentary like this to cover, but I found it a little slow. I did appreciate seeing numerous clips from the TV show, though, which only appear to reaffirm my opinion that I'd like it more than the movie.
A "Deleted Scenes Reel" (7:22) follows. Funny, although there are no revelations here, only snippets. A series of Test Shot Comparisons (2:15) follow, illustrating how some of the animation was done (oddly, the film footage is incorrectly framed in this clip). Seven video interview clips with Aubier and Patar follow (0:43, 0:21, 0:57, 0:25, 0:25, 0:54, and 1:04), which are interesting, but as you can see, also incredibly short (why the interview is broken up into chapters at all is sort of beyond me).
The major video extras are finished off with "Obsessive Compulsive" (1:38), the winner of a contest put on by Zeitgeist films to promote A Town Called Panic. It's nicely animated, but it's pretty amateur; if there hadn't been a note in the booklet explaining what it was about I'm not sure I'd have figured it out. A photo gallery and the U.S. Theatrical Trailer round out the disc.
Despite my reservations about how well the film will hold up to repeat viewings, A Town Called Panic is a great piece of animation, great enough that it's worth a recommendation anyway. Paired with rock solid A/V and a slew of interesting extras (even if I'd have appreciated an Aubier/Patar commentary), this is well worth checking out...at least once, anyway.
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