Toy his­toire

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Rob DeWalt

A Town Called Panic, stop-mo­tion-an­i­mated toy ad­ven­ture, not rated, in French with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3.5 chiles The Academy Award for Best Pic­ture isn’t the only cat­e­gory with an ex­panded ros­ter of nom­i­nees this year. In the Best An­i­mated Fea­ture cat­e­gory, a whop­ping 20 films made the first-round list for Os­car con­sid­er­a­tion, and five are in the fi­nal run­ning for the award. Among the ini­tial el­i­gi­ble selections were big-bud­get crowd pleasers like Up, Fan­tas­tic Mr. Fox, Co­ra­line, The Princess and the Frog, and Mon­sters vs. Aliens, with all but the last pass­ing muster for fi­nal-round wor­thi­ness.

The only Euro­pean nom­i­nee this year is the rel­a­tively low-bud­get Ir­ish pic­ture The Se­cret of Kells (pro­duced for around €6.5 mil­lion), but an­other Euro­pean an­i­mated film— which made the cut in the ini­tial se­lec­tion process but fell by the way­side— is A Town Called Panic, the brain­child of Bel­gian an­i­ma­tors Stéphane Au­bier and Vin­cent Patar.

Com­bin­ing a tricked-out Gumby aes­thetic, clas­si­cal pi­ano, Euro rock, and a plot line that plays like a kid-friendly take on Richard Elf­man’s (brother of com­poser Danny Elf­man) crude and ab­sur­dist 1982 movie, For­bid­den Zone, Panic lives up to its name.

As an ex­ten­sion of fes­ti­val shorts and a French stop-mo­tion-an­i­mated tele­vi­sion se­ries ti­tled Panique au Vil­lage, A Town Called Panic is well de­serv­ing of Academy recog­ni­tion. It is the first stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion fea­ture to be an Of­fi­cial Se­lec­tion (out of com­pe­ti­tion) at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, and it was also cho­sen as an Of­fi­cial Se­lec­tion of the 2009 Toronto Film Fes­ti­val.

If you plan to see this film and ex­pect it to de­liver Pixar magic, in­spire Avatar-like awe, or mimic tried-and-true Dis­ney sto­ry­telling, be for­warned. It has none of that. But if you want to ex­pe­ri­ence the fine art of painstak­ingly ren­dered low-tech stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion, nutty slap­stick, and a story line that plays like it sprang di­rectly from the mind of a highly imag­i­na­tive French child, it would be a mis­take to miss this one.

Re­leased by Aard­man Stu­dios of Wal­lace & Gromit fame and crafted like an action-fig­ure play date held in mul­ti­ple di­men­sions, Panic stirs child­hood mem­o­ries of pit­ting minia­ture plas­tic cow­boys and In­di­ans against other petroleum-based play­things. How­ever, for­go­ing the usual cir­cling wag­ons and hill­top shootouts on liv­ing-room floors, Au­bier and Patar de­liver a bizarre, silly, and chaotic com­bi­na­tion of Toy Story, Green Acres, and a pro­longed ab­sinthe hal­lu­ci­na­tion.

In a sleepy farm­ing vil­lage filled with talk­ing an­i­mals and other char­ac­ters, Cow­boy and In­dian hatch a plan to build their friend— a grumpy horse named Horse— an out­door brick bar­be­cue. When they ac­ci­den­tally or­der 50 mil­lion bricks in­stead of 50, they panic and hide the ex­tra bricks on top of Horse’s house. Mean­while, Horse courts the vil­lage’s equine mu­sic teacher, who plays a mean Bizet on a pi­ano with seem­ingly in­fi­nite keys.

Af­ter a rau­cous birth­day party at Horse’s house, the struc­ture col­lapses un­der the weight of the hid­den bricks, and Cow­boy and In­dian are or­dered to re­build it. When they do, though, sea crea­tures from an al­ter­nate uni­verse ar­rive on a nearby farmer’s prop­erty through a pond-like worm­hole and steal the new house away to their do­main on the ocean’s floor. Cow­boy, In­dian, and Horse chase af­ter the flip­per footed aliens, and they wind up hav­ing mis­ad­ven­tures in strange lo­cales such as the cen­ter of the Earth, a snowy land­scape pa­trolled by mad sci­en­tists, and the bow­els of a me­chan­i­cal pen­guin that hurls gi­gan­tic snow­balls onto help­less wood­land crea­tures (heads-up, Bambi!).

If this story isn’t enough to give your child­hood dreams (or per­haps your hazy col­lege days) a run for their money, add a can­tan­ker­ous farmer named Steve, an overzeal­ous po­lice­man, a woolly mam­moth, and a don­key that plays the drums.

For all of its scripted lu­nacy, which starts to wear a lit­tle thin about two-thirds of the way through the 75-minute film, Panic ex­cels at vis­ual bril­liance, and the at­ten­tion to de­tail is no­table: for each toy char­ac­ter, nearly 200 repli­cas were cre­ated for the 260-day shoot. The stop-mo­tion-an­i­ma­tion style is pur­pose­fully herky-jerky, which adds to the over­all tone of may­hem. The color scheme fan­ci­fully flips from hot to cool as the char­ac­ters move from their farm­ing vil­lage to the Earth’s core and the un­der­wa­ter world of the “At­lantes” crea­tures. As with the film’s whim­si­cal dio­rama sets, Panic’s char­ac­ters are com­ple­mented by in­cred­i­ble lighting de­sign that never fails to en­hance the mood.

The sound edit­ing, mu­sic, and voice work all fol­low Panic’s fren­zied vis­ual pace: French di­a­logue and English sub­ti­tles are light­ning-quick (al­most to a fault), and many of the char­ac­ters talk like they’re on a helium bender. Rock-mu­sic buffs will en­joy the odd­ball sound­track, which in­cludes “I Wanna Be Your Pussy­cat” by Euro-garage-rock main­stay Beat “Rev­erend Beat-Man” Zeller, as well as Phil Spec­tor’s “Sag Warum.” The film­mak­ers ob­vi­ously aren’t reach­ing for to­tal au­di­ence im­mer­sion here, but in­stead let you sit in on their crazy play date and al­low you to imag­ine and in­ter­pret as deeply— or as de­tachedly— as you see fit.

Sacre moo! The plas­tic fan­tas­tic char­ac­ters of A Town Called Panic

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