A Town Called Panic may be the most oddball thing you see all year, if you see it, which you probably won’t, although perhaps you should. How can I explain it?
The stop-motion world of A Town Called Panic was developed in a series of five-minute shorts created by the Belgian animators Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier and distributed by Aardman Animations. A feature film adaptation, which played in limited release earlier this year, is now available on DVD. You can watch episodes online (on YouTube they are generally chopped in half, while at Atom.com you can watch them uncut, preceded by brief commercial videos). Episodes range from side-splittingly silly to just kind of twee; of the episodes I’ve seen, my favorites include “Cake” (the pilot episode), “Fox Hunt” and “Cowboy and Indian Go Camping.”
Deliberately primitive and haphazard, A Town Called Panic (or Panique au village) evokes something kids might make playing with a video camera and cheap plastic toys, just making up random silliness on the spot. The characters don’t actually look like they’re moving; they sort of scoot jerkily along with their feet firmly affixed to their little bases. Sometimes they change poses, as if one Indian figurine were swapped for another between frames.
There are three main characters: a cowboy named Cowboy, an Indian named Indian, and a horse named Horse (Cheval). There is also a policeman named Policeman (Gendarme), a farmer named Steven (gotcha!) and his wife Jeanine. The relationships among the characters make no sense: Cowboy, Indian and Horse all live in the same house, but Horse acts like the parent while Cowboy and Indian are like bickering, heedless brothers. Making matters weirder still, Cowboy and Indian appear to be from two different toy sets, so that Indian is much too big for Cowboy.
Nothing seems thought out in advance. Ideas occur to characters and they act on them, then react to whatever consequences occur. Dialogue seldom goes beyond obvious commentary on whatever is happening at the moment (“Oh no!” being a common refrain). It would not be hard to imagine that the animation was done independently and the dialogue improvised afterward. I suppose the English dubbing on the shorts more or less accurately reflects the original French, but many episodes might play pretty much the same if the English speakers weren’t given translations and had to ad lib.
The feature film, naturally, is a somewhat different animal. Character interactions and situations are a bit more complex, though everyone still lives pretty much in the moment. It’s entertaining to see what the filmmakers can do with their world over 75 minutes instead of only five, although some may find that such rich nuttiness goes down better in smaller doses. As Roger Ebert puts it, “You can only eat so much cake.” (Of course, on DVD you can always watch it in slices.)
The film is subtitled rather than dubbed, which doesn’t make much difference, except for younger kids whose reading speed may not be up to the challenge. One unfortunate caveat: The subtitles include a scattering of profanity (including misusing Jesus’ name) and rude language. That doesn’t happen on the shorts I’ve seen, at least in the dubbed versions. Why on earth would anyone put a barrier between a film like this and children (or even adults sensitive to profanity)?
Curiously, watching the film I was repeatedly reminded of the Laurel & Hardy classic Babes in Toyland, AKA The March of the Wooden Soldiers. An Internet mistake in which Cowboy and Indian accidentally order 50 million bricks instead of 50 bricks for Horse’s birthday present is reminiscent of Stannie and Ollie’s bungling of Santa Claus’s order of wooden soldiers for Christmas presents, which results in 100 six-foot soldiers instead of 600 one-foot soldiers. And the discovery of an alarmingly close cavernous world of submarine gremlins is quite similar to Toyland’s cavernous Bogeyland, which was not only just on the other side of the gates of Toyland, but was also accessible via the underground passage connected to Barnaby’s well, right under everyone’s feet.
But then there’s also a journey to the earth’s core, a giant snowball-throwing penguin robot operated by three pettily cruel mad scientists, Horse’s shy flirtation with a lady horse piano teacher named Madame Longrée, and other craziness that probably won’t remind anyone of anything they’ve ever seen.
Watching A Town Called Panic, you realize how Hollywood-polished Andy’s play-pretend cliff-hanger fantasies in the Toy Story movies really were. Not that Panic isn’t witty. But its wit is in a seemingly artless vein — frenetic, nonsensical and ultimately impossible to explain.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.