It's a wonderful talent to be able to make hard work look effortless. In A Town Called Panic, Belgian directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar keenly mimic the innocent act of a child playing with his or her toys by animating a horse, an indian and a cowboy in the painstaking process of stop-motion. The characters appear familiar—like cheap figurines fresh out of a childhood toy chest, they recall a time before such chests were home to Pikachus and Shreks—and the results feel spontaneous despite the incredible amount of work it surely took to pull off.
A Town Called Panic began in 2000 as a festival short called The Cake, before being picked up as a series on television stations across the world, an english dub handled by Wallace and Gromit's own Aardman studios. Focusing on a small village where Horse, Cowboy and Indian live together in a house, the shorts were effortlessly funny, but never the most densely plotted bits of entertainment. Often the randomness of the trio's adventures was to their advantage. Much like other recent animated forays into theatres such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force or The Simpsons, I feared that the series' zany charm would not translate to feature length.
At the outset of the film, it is Horse's birthday and Cowboy and Indian have forgotten to get him a present. A simple web-order of 50 bricks for building a barbeque goes wrong and soon Cowboy and Indian have to find somewhere to hide 50 million bricks. Their misadventures will take them to the center of the earth and beneath the sea, for reasons I can't begin to recall, but it is the characters' interactions that are easily the highlight, their high-pitched and panicky voices making good on the town's name. They all have firmly developed relationships with each other, with the obvious hate-love relationship between Cowboy and Indian causing much of the trouble and Horse struggling to keep the peace. Their plastic-looking feet are often fixed to a toy-pedestal, forcing the characters to waddle to and fro, and you can almost picture a tiny hand moving them around.
With such a charming concept in place, Aubier and Patar have done their best to inject more structure than usual into the film's 75 minutes of run-time, but some of the gang's exploits continue to come across as disparate episodes rather than a coherent whole. For those less forgiving of animated whimsy, I worry that Panic's progression begins to tiptoe a fine line between humor and nonsense.
Premiering at Cannes last year, it's obvious that A Town Called Panic is finally receiving the critical attention that it deserves, and a stateside release of the feature is sure to please younger viewers who enjoy a nice bit of silliness. Children just pick the parts they like from films and forget the rest anyway.
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