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A Town Called Panic

Art House & International, Comedy, and Science Fiction & Fantasy movie directed by Stephane Aubier;Vincent Patar

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It's Playtime All Over Again

  • Aug 30, 2011
Star Rating:

A Town Called Panic is the most innovative mad folly ever to make the direct leap from the imagination to the big screen. Adapted from the European TV series, it stirred within me long-dormant childhood memories, when I would not only play with action figures and dolls but also assign them roles, provide them with silly voices, and guide them on illogical adventures that went nowhere in particular. This movie evokes that kind of creative playfulness. The stop-motion animation is crude, the characters are little more than plastic figurines (with their feet attached to a base in most cases), and the plot is wacky and completely unpredictable. It’s almost as if there was no screenplay beforehand; perhaps the filmmakers made up every sequence as they went along. Credit to writers/directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar for remembering how stories are formed by children, namely entirely on their own whims.
I’m still playing catch-up with movies, but I think it’s safe to assume that few have ever involved a talking horse living in a rural house on a hill with a cowboy and an Indian. As the film begins, it’s Horse’s birthday. Rather than get him another cap, Cowboy (voiced by Aubier) and Indian (voiced by Bruce Ellison) – who are kind of dumb and constantly bicker like ten-year-old siblings – decide to build him a brick barbecue pit. This means that they have to order bricks via the internet. They only need fifty to complete the job. A random keyboard accident adds an inordinate number of zeroes to their order, so they’re forced to hide all the extra bricks by piling them into a gigantic block on top of their house. As this is happening, Horse (voiced by Patar) is enrolled into a local music academy, mostly because he has a crush on the piano teacher, Mrs. Longray, a mare (voiced by Jeanne Balibar).

When their house is destroyed under the weight of all those bricks, Horse, a stern father figure, orders Cowboy and Indian to use the bricks to build a new house. Their efforts are thwarted by thieving monsters that each looks like a cross between a scuba diver, a Conehead, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Simply put, they rob people of walls. Horse, Cowboy, and Indian take off after one of them, whose name is Gerard (voiced by Frédéric Jannin). So begins a journey that will take our heroes from the center of the earth to the Arctic Circle to a city under the sea. Along the way, they will encounter all manner of bizarre things. In the Arctic, for example, they wind up in a monstrous mobile research station constructed to look like a mechanical penguin. Periodically, a gigantic scooper makes equally gigantic snowballs, which the penguin’s flippers hurl at farm animals halfway across the world. And did I mention the scientists running this thing are strong enough to toss people around like volleyballs?
Meanwhile, the locals have noticed that Horse, Cowboy, and Indian have gone missing. These include: Policeman (also voiced by Jannin), who has bunker than in the blink of an eye can pop out of the ground and turn into a jail; a farmer named Steven (voiced by Benoît Poelvoorde), who’s immensely protective of his tractor and, regardless of whether he’s angry or calm, screams every line like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown; Steven’s kindly wife, Janine (voiced by Véronique Dumont); the pleasant but clueless Postman (voiced by Bouli Lanners); and Steven’s wide variety of farm animals, many of whom take classes with Mrs. Longray. Incidentally, she keeps calling Horse all throughout the film, and never mind the fact that he somehow always winds up near a phone, even when he’s dangling from a craggy peak over a lava pit. She’s deeply concerned over the fact that he isn’t attending classes. He neglects to tell her that he’s busy trying to stay alive, possibly in an effort to impress her.

I couldn’t begin to explain this even if I wanted to. You’re just going to have to go with the flow. It’s not so much about the plot anyway, but about the ingenuity that went into every frame. In an age when multimillion-dollar studios like Pixar and DreamWorks dominate the animation scene with beautifully rendered backgrounds and characters, here’s a film that, in the best possible sense, looks like it’s held together with spit. The filmmakers have practiced the truest kind of creativity, where you make the most out of what little you have. Whether it was an intentional stylistic approach or pure happenstance, I have no way of knowing. Judging by the results, I don’t think it matters in the slightest.
Visually, the film is colorful enough that younger audiences may appreciate it. It certainly is zany enough to accommodate their attention spans, and they might even laugh at the voice work, which, even in French, reminded me of the hyperactive voiceover narrations Bob Saget once lent to America’s Funniest Home Videos. That being said, it’s quite obvious that it was not made for children. It’s not so much that it contains adult content (although there are a few choice subtitles the little ones shouldn’t be reading). It’s more a matter of it not appealing to their formative needs – lessons on friendship, tolerance, family, love, etc. At the end of the day, A Town Called Panic is nothing more or less than an astounding original achievement, a wacky free-fall into pure fantasy, a welcome excuse to leave your logical mind at the door and just have fun.


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September 01, 2011
whoa....a perfect score! Now I have to peep this one...
September 03, 2011
I happened to catch this a few nights ago on the Sundance channel. I thought it was so original and innovative, and I just had to give it four stars. Now I wish I had seen it back when it was released in the U.S. (a toss up between late 2009 and early 2010, depending on where in the country you were). It might have made one of my top ten lists.
More A Town Called Panic reviews
review by . May 01, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
One of my earliest memories is of sitting outside in the snow and a big jacket, with my Playskool plastic barn and assorted barn animals, toy cars, soldiers and such. I spent hours, everywhere, arranging these figures, hurling them through the sky, burying them under rocks, occasionally melting or dissecting them, inventing crazy situations where they could interact, play, attack and relax. None of them, I expect, were as exhilaratingly intense or as laugh-out-loud-funny as the bizarre adventures …
review by . May 29, 2010
"A Town Called Panic"       An Anarchic Feature Film       Amos Lassen     Animated toys like Cowboy, Indian and Horse have problems just like we so. Cowboy and Horse want to celebrate the birthday of their friend Horse and they decide to build him a barbecue pit. However they made a mistake when ordering the bricks and accidentally ordered a billion too many. In the beginning they were able to hide the extra bricks …
About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #5
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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Writer-directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar spun this nutty feature off their Belgian TV seriesA Town Called Panic(Panique au Village, 2000). When Cowboy and Indian decide to build a barbecue as a birthday gift for their friend and roommate Horse, they inadvertently order a zillion bricks, rather than the 50 the project requires. The weight of so much masonry causes the house to collapse, and a string of increasingly absurd complications ensues. The stop-motion animation is much cruder than the work inCoralineorTim Burton's Corpse Bride. Even the main characters have only a few articulations, and the directors avoid close-ups, so they don't have to animate facial expressions or lip-synch dialogue. The result feels like something an aspiring film student might make using old plastic toys. Many viewers (and critics) embraced the anarchic humor ofA Town Called Panic; less sanguine audience members dismissed it as the animated equivalent of an old Cheech and Chong movie: something that's funny if you're stoned, but isn't if you're not. The extras include a making-of documentary, interviews with directors Aubier and Patar, and an assortment of deleted scenes and tests--more material than such a marginal film really warrants. (Unrated, suitable for ages 10 and older: cartoon violence, ethnic stereotypes)--Charles Solomon
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Genre: Foreign, Comedy, Sci-Fi, Fantasy
DVD Release Date: July 20, 2010
Runtime: 75 minutes
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
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