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A Town Called Panic

Director: Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar
Cast: Stéphane Aubier, Jeanne Balibar, Nicolas Buysse, Véronique Dumont

(La Partí Productions et al; US DVD: 20 Jul 2010)

Simultaneously absurd and accessible, A Town Called Panic is one of those rare films that is authentically and effortlessly appealing for all ages, or, at least, for anyone capable of being spirited away by weird fun and an exuberant and childish, in the best sense of that term, imagination. Based on a Belgian TV series, A Town Called Panic uses rough stop-motion action, simple figures, and gorgeous miniature landscapes to generate a crazy energy that few lovers of animation will be able to resist.


The film begins simply enough with a scene of the morning mail being delivered in a bucolic setting. However, A Town Called Panic‘s quirks begin to show soon enough as the opening scene ends at the house of its protagonists, “Horse”, “Cowboy”, and “Indian”. The clever idea of having a cowboy, an Indian, and a single horse sharing a house together gets pushed over the top by the spectacle of their morning ritual, which includes all three taking turns in the shower and much running around to get the mail.


The fact that all three characters not only have generic names, but look like plastic toys from the ‘50s, makes these introductory scenes both gently inviting and seriously off-kilter.


The arrival of the mail reminds Cowboy and Indian that it is Horse’s birthday. This sparks the first of the many panics that drive the plot. Here the two men scramble to come up with a present for their equine friend. They decide to build a barbecue, an idea that leads to a scheme to get Horse out of the house so that they can use the computer to order the bricks they need.


Indian’s plan requires 50 bricks, but an accident with Cowboy’s coffee cup results in an order of 50 million. This mistake is the first in a string of events that results in the destruction of the house, which is owned by Horse, and leads to encounters with a race of amphibious fish creatures, a journey to the center of the earth, a trip across an arctic/antarctic landscape involving mad scientists and a giant, snowball throwing robot, and ending in another birthday for Horse, complete with mishap.


If this outline seems ridiculous, that’s because it is, but the particulars of each act are even more strange. Directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, and their writing partners, Guillaume Malandrin and Vincent Tavier, neither attempt to mask nor rationalize the absurdity of their story. Instead, they build a world for the narrative that is almost infinitely open and flexible, and that operates on its own logic.


There are numerous everyday oddities about life in the village. For example, some characters, like the heroes, have titles for names. Others, for no apparent reason, have proper names, including other animals, and at least one horse. Some animals are thoroughly anthropomorphized, while others are not. Scale is relative and malleable, with characters and objects sometimes matching up in ways that mirror the outside world, and sometimes not. Particularly given the gradual build-up to the wilder aspects of the story, such small examples of difference are encouragement to think, “Why not”, when the fish creatures begin appearing or when Indian, Horse, and Cowboy tumble into the the earth’s core.


Similarly, Panic is made such that the machinery of the animation is on display for viewers. Figures have a limited range of expression. Movements are sudden and jerky. Some characters are moved around on stands, while others are not. Buildings and landscape features have clearly been manufactured by human hands out of a variety of materials that rarely match what they are meant to represent.


For those who think primarily of the hyperreal worlds of digital when they think of animation, A Town Called Panic‘s apparent primitiveness may be a barrier to enjoyment. For others, noticing the under workings of the art will only enhance their appreciation of the film. In many cases, charm and the uniformly engaging voice acting will compensate for ruptures arising from the movie’s vintage look.


The Zeitgeist Films DVD is nicely appointed with extras, including a making of feature, a series of director interviews, comparisons of test shots and scenes from the film, deleted scenes, and a gallery of production stills. The disc also includes the short film, “Obsessive Compulsive”, which was selected as the winner in a stop-motion animation contest sponsored by the distributor.


At 52-minutes, the making of feature is substantive, and well produced. In addition to looking at how the movie was made in practical terms, the documentary also looks at its broader creative lineage, discussing previous works and influences, and how different contributors came to be involved in the production. It will likely whet your appetite for the TV series on which the film is based, and is currently unavailable in English, even as American viewers may feel occasionally lost in the references to Belgian and Francophone pop culture. The other extras, notably the interviews, are still interesting if less well made.


Of course, having the potential to appeal to all ages is not the same as appealing to everyone. A Town Called Panic, despite its silliness and level of unreality, shows adult behavior, drinking, mild profanity, and romance, as matter-of-fact and utterly normal aspects of life. While none of this is any more graphic than one is likely to see and hear at a family gathering, those who like their entertainment worlds to be buffed and polished, all of the rough edges smoothed away into an ideal, and socially sanitized, image of what life should be, will find it enough to avoid the film.


That’s their loss. The rest of us can revel in the lunacy.

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Shaun Huston is an associate professor in Geography and Film Studies at Western Oregon University, where he primarily teaches courses in political and cultural geography. He also makes films, including Comic Book City, Portland, Oregon, USA (2012), a documentary on the community of comics creators in Portland, Oregon (view details on IMDB).


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