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