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Review: A Town Called Panic (2010)

Chaos reigns in a Belgian Town Called Panic
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  February 10, 2010


It is, indeed, a golden age for animation, where silent montages can wrenchingly portray a lifelong bond (in Pete Docter's Up), or a band of stop-motion foxes can act out complex and angsty family dynamics (Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox), or a child's imaginary world is realized with vivid detail (Henry Selick's Coraline). A Town Called Panic (Panique au village), a French-language stop-animation feature by the Belgian duo Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar, has no such lofty ambitions, but its chaotic, breakneck action carries a grace and wit of its own.

In this gleefully anarchic world, the residents of Panic are the plastic figurines of your parents' childhood: barnyard animals, police officers, and the like. Fifteen hundred of them, some "clones" used to enact different movements and physical expressions of characters, populate the landscape. Most of them, like Cowboy and Indian (who share a bedroom and bond over schemes despite their differences), have manic personalities and shrill voices (provided by the directors and other voice actors, spoken in French and subtitled into English) and sound a bit like South Park's Terrance and Phillip. Horse, who is a father figure to Cowboy and Indian, is a mellower sort, tidy and stoic, except when he encounters the town's music teacher, Mrs. Longray, a horse with a bright orange mane and tail.

After enacting their morning routine (Horse uses a large shower while Cowboy and Indian fight over the other; Indian blow-dries his headdress), Cowboy and Indian realize that it's Horse's birthday, and set out to build him a brick rotisserie grill. They hop on Horse's computer and, intending to order 50 bricks, accidentally order 50 million when the handle of a coffee mug lands on the zero key. (Meanwhile, their next-door neighbor, Farmer, gulps his life-sized mug with such gusto that he demolishes the mug itself.)

To hide the enormous heap (delivered instantly) from Horse, they frantically pile the bricks on top of their house. The arrangement conveniently holds up until the end of Horse's birthday party, when the house caves in and bricks flood the neighborhood. At times, the film looks like the remnants of a playhouse after your older sibling has upended it.

The characters in A Town Called Panic all come from a 15-minute animated series by Aubier and Patar — which is distributed by Aardman Animations, producers of the Wallace and Gromit cartoons — and the humor wouldn't be out of place on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim (think of it as a less topical and crude South Park crossed with the utter randomness of Robot Chicken). The directors are able to sustain the charm of this feature-length adventure for a couple of reasons: the plot moves as quickly as the jokes pile up, and the gags are usually as witty as they are inventive.

Some of the best laughs come from subtle lines that establish personalities for minor characters, as when Horse stops by the music school to pick up some other animals, and the school's principal yells, "You can't just walk in to a music school!" Later, it's more amusing when the principal chastises Horse for missing piano lessons, despite Horse's good excuse: his house (which he, Indian, and Cowboy rebuild with their supply of bricks) is repeatedly stolen in the night by a crew of bandits who dwell underwater.

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