A Belgian/French/ Luxembourg co-production, A Town Called Panic is a demented, but completely enthralling stop motion comedy-drama (emphasis in the comedy), utilising talking toys as protagonists it was based on a series of earlier TV episodes of the same name.
Filmed on a low budget utilising charmingly jerky animation (the production went through 1500 plastic figures in the 260 hours it took to film), it marks the feature Debut of Co-Writer/ Directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The names may not prove familiar, but UK viewers may well notice the film’s similarity to the Cravendale Milk adverts, which featured a toy Cowboy, Indian and Cow in various misadventures- the directors were also behind those adverts, which are perhaps the only thing to compare the film with, but even they can’t come close, put simply A Town Called Panic is…unique.
The sensible Horse (A toy horse), idiotic Cowboy (A toy cowboy) and arguably more idiotic Indian (A toy Native American) share one of two houses in a remote village, at first they lead a relatively ‘normal’ existence, all of which is about to change.
Looking to surprise Horse with a handmade barbecue for his birthday, Cowboy and Indian accidently order 50 million bricks instead of the 50 required, destroying their house in the process, after a serious of arguments, they salvage the bricks to build new walls, which are promptly stolen by a team of bizarre pointy headed water mutants. Forced into pursuit the trio are lead on an action packed journey that takes them through the centre of the earth, to the north Pole and back again.
It’s a simple plot that never attempts to take itself seriously; the trio’s journey has little real purpose (surely they could just order more bricks?), with no notable reward at the end. The one conventional element of the plot, a romance between Horse and A local music teacher (also a Horse) is thinly sketched and seemingly irrelevant to the film, its few rather random appearances do little to add to the story and aren’t really needed. Ultimately the plot is secondary to the near constant stream of jokes (by no means a problem), which range from inspired to truly bizarre. A card game played on top of a rock hurtling through the planet’s interior, and a Toy horse teaching Piano lessons being only two examples. The jokes are primarily stupid, there is little profanity, sex or violence in the film, when they are included they tend to be pretty cartoonish anyway, making it suitable viewing for most.
The designs are distinctly retro, limited in detail, and scope, in many cases resembling products you’d find in a local Toy Shop, but its all part of the charm. But the most surprising thing about this film is just how convincing the central idea of having toys for protagonists is. There are few continuity errors, every single movement feels convincing, it’s almost possible to trace the animator’s hands as the characters move around the screen. An enthusiastic voice cast suits the film well, bringing a lot of character to the few roles (Many double as more than one character) featured in the film, though many of the more minor characters are quite easily forgotten.
The actual stop motion is deliberately jerky and rough around the edges, it’s an energetic style to use, and makes the film visually exciting throughout, though it does occasionally overstay its welcome. The plot rarely pauses for a breather and using a frantic visual style to match can prove an unwelcome assault on the eyes.
Perhaps realising that even such an original story wouldn’t be too all tastes the directors utilise a surprisingly large amount of camera angles to show the story, it’s never exactly cinematic, but certainly not boring either. It also demonstrates that, technically the film is largely successful; with only a few editing decisions and random camera placements letting the film down,
The narrative builds to a rather surprising ending, which happily demonstrates the characters haven’t learnt a thing, before cutting to the end credits, animated with the same colour scheme as the opening; a colourful musical score is underused in the film, making its main appearances in these sequences.
Though Spoken in a foreign language (There are good English Subtitles available on some versions), and filmed and set in a foreign country this is a very accessible film, viewers who can understand, or accept A Town Called Panic’s strange concept should enjoy themselves. It’s idiotic and cheaply made, but often hilarious and thoroughly entertaining.