There was a time when the artform known as stop-motion animation was more or less dead. Unless your name was Rankin and/or Bass, or you had a limited F/X budget via which to render your "money" shots, the handheld, one frame at a time process was useless to you. Oh sure, artists like Tim Burton and Henry Selick successfully resurrected the idea a few decades back, bringing to life the stellar stories of The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, The Corpse Bride, and Coraline, but unless you were trying to render your reality on the cheap, you didn't dare fly in the face of Harryhausen and his muse. Luckily, foreign filmmakers like Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier have been bucking the trend while making the irresistibly nutzoid TV show Panique au village. Translated as A Town Called Panic, it was a massive hit after appearing on screens worldwide in 2000. Now, ten years later, the pair responsible are bring the crazy characters and speedball silliness to the full length motion picture format. As usual, not only does the upgrade favor A Town Called Panic, it is guaranteed to jumpstart a whole new cult of converts.
Toy pieces Cowboy, Indian, and Horse all live in the tiny village of Panic. Their neighbors include Policeman, Postman, farmer Steven, his wife Janine, their brood of pigs, cows, and chickens, as well as equine music teacher Madam Longray and her assistant Simon. When Cowboy and Indian mistakenly order 50 million bricks in order to build a birthday barbeque for Horse, they set off a chain of events that see their house destroyed, their efforts to rebuild it thwarted, and the discovery of some thieves from a parallel universe under the sea. In the meantime, Madam Longray is concerned about Horse. Though he's promised to attend her school and learn piano, he has so far failed to make a single lesson.
A Town Called Panic is the cinematic definition of a hoot. It's a high energy goof, a nonstop homage to silent film comedy, kid's imagination, and plucky playthings, all accented with a surrealism all its own. It's Toy Story without the wistful adult nostalgia - or Pixar's pristine CG design. As the brainchild of Belgian artists Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier, it's the kind of perverse puppetoon anarchy that both references and reinvents the genre it is working within. Having gotten its start as a successful TV series (small five minute movies were typically linked together to form half hour shows), it represents the pinnacle of protracted procrastination. Many will see it as nothing more than a child's playset come to life, a collection of action figures and animal collectibles running chaotically around a fake landscape. The story will also be seen as secondary to the high pitched voices, non sequitor slapstick, one off in-jokes, and attempts at satire. Like Pee Wee's Playhouse gone continental, A Town Called Panic doesn't purport to be some manner of sly social commentary or expressive international incident. Instead, it's supposed to remind one of lazy days sitting in your bedroom, rifling through your belongings and making up adventures as the sun slowly sank in the distance.
The storyline is nothing more than a set-up, a way of getting our characters to interact in increasingly insane ways. Watching Horse go about his daily routine, lording over Cowboy and Indian with parental disdain is hilarious, as is the duo's hyperactive juvenile actions. One minute they're reading the morning paper, the next they are traversing the valley between their house and Farmer Steven's hoping to stir up/avoid trouble. When the frogmen villains from the deep show up, looking as bad as any b-movie man in suit can, Patar and Aubier up the ante, twisting traditional elements (like a underwater department store and a familial home) into unique views of a witty otherworld. Perhaps the best bit comes right at the front, with Cowboy and Indian desperate to hide a literal ton of bricks from horse. As they manically maneuver between deliveries, as their amplified anxiety goes into overdrive, the craziness becomes infectious. Before long, we are fretting over Steven's stint in jail, worried that Horse might never get to Madam Longray's class (and a place in her heart), and that the last five minutes won't be as fun as the first 70.
There is no need to agonize, however. By expanding their canvas, by taking the material and accentuating the proof positive, Patar and Aubier turn A Town Called Panic into a classic. They never let up, keeping the tone amplified and outrageous from beginning to end. The use of inarticulate plastic toys is crucial to the piece's overall success. Like South Park, where the original cardboard cutouts could do little except talk and awkwardly trot along, Patar and Aubie use gestures, setting, and situation to sell their humor. When Indian gets out of the shower and blow dries his headdress, the feathers flapping in the breeze sell the gag splendidly. Similarly, Madam Longray's classroom has specifically designed pianos and other instruments for the various animals she instructs. From the Rube Goldberg like fixtures that help these characters in their daily lives to the massive destructive set pieces (including a brick shower and a tidal wave that are incredibly effective in their scope), A Town Called Panic produces a goofy grin from ear to entertained ear. While not as unhinged as the work of Henry Selick or Tim Burton, it's still proof of how a lost artform can be put to masterful, merry use.
Offered by Zeitgeist Video in a stunning 2:35.1 anamorphic image, the transfer for A Town Called Panic is terrific. It's almost vibrates in its primary color beauty, and is so detailed you can see the occasional F/X cheats used to make the figurines more "pliable". Patar and Aubier are not the most cinematic directors in the world, but they do put the frame to good use, especially during the climatic battle between our heroes and the evil entities from beneath the sea.
On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is nothing really special. The French language soundtrack (with excellent English subtitles) comes across loud and clear, and the musical score by French Cowboy and Dionysos really helps set the anarchic tone. With well done sound F/X and a cartoon feel overall, the aural presentation is polished, if not very immersive or dimensional.
We begin with a bunch of deleted scenes that should actually be called 'edited snippets'. They consist almost exclusively of moments removed either from the beginning or the end of already available sequences. The video interviews with Patar and Aubier are good, if oblique, since the duo are notorious for being very insular and introverted about their work. The test shot comparisons and photo gallery are intriguing but offer limited replay value, and the short film "Obsessive Compulsive" chosen by the filmmakers are part of a fan contest is cute at best. The most startling bit of added content however is the 52 minute documentary La Fabrique de Panique which follows the entire history of the movie: Patar and Aubier's college days; their chance meetings with future collaborators; their first animated films; their eventual brainstorm for A Town Called Panic; the TV series; translating it to a feature length film; the year long shoot and even longer post-production process. It almost makes up for the rest of the lackluster extras.
As thoroughly engaging as it is unquestionably bizarre, A Town Called Panic is a product of pure unadulterated imagination. It practically hovers in mid-air it's so novel and inventive. Many may believe it to be an overhyped example of twee European camp, but if you look beneath the cutesy pie elements, you'll see a real level of humor and inspiration here. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, it is one of those much talked about titles that definitely has to be seen to be believed. Go in expecting sophistication and sobriety and you'll come out a little shellshocked. Enter ready for its anything goes approach and you'll come away wanting more of Cowboy, Indian, and Horse's hilarious antics. This is definitely one town that will put you in a panic - comically speaking.