A Town Called Panic Review

A Town Called Panic
Written and Directed by: Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar
Starring: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Bruce Ellison, Jeanne Balibar, Véronique Dumont

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In a year when there have been so many great animated films being released, there are bound to be a few that get lost in the mix. A Town Called Panic is one of those films, and although it definitely goes a little further off the beaten path, it will likely appeal to some of the more adventurous animation addicts out there. If you are willing to take a chance on a manic and borderline nonsensical journey to the center of the earth and back, you just might find magic in this soon-to-be cult classic. Or you might just find it gives you a headache.

Based on the Belgian animated series of the same name, A Town Called Panic is a stop-motion film that centers on three main characters: a cowboy, an indian and a horse. They are all plastic toys, and they are named, quite simply Cowboy, Indian, and Horse. The story picks up with Cowboy and Indian realizing that they have forgotten to buy a gift for Horse’s birthday. They quickly hop on the internet and order some bricks so that they can build him a barbecue in the backyard. Things start to get out of control when they realize that they’ve accidentally ordered way too many bricks (fifty million, to be exact), and as they try to hide the truckloads of material, they end up destroying their house. From here they embark on an insane adventure that involves pointy-headed fish creatures, scientists in a giant mechanical penguin, and an undersea song and dance number performed by a band of animals.

Now I have to admit, I was probably spoiled after having seen Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox just a few months ago, but as a result, the crude animation style of A Town Called Panic felt a little bit underwhelming to me. I know it’s unfair to compare because of the obvious budget difference, but with minimal facial expressions, no mouth movement and very little camerawork whatsoever, it was difficult to get swept up in the movie’s energy. The characters slide around the scenes frantically as their voices chatter at each other in high-pitched French (the movie is subtitled), but it feels like very little is actually going on. Which is not to say that there aren’t some impressive sets and surreal visuals here, only that I was expecting a bit more from a feature film.

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Although the animation itself reminded me most of Robot Chicken (being that it is essentially plastic toys moving around), I think the closest comparison I can come up with for the spirit of this movie is Pingu meets South Park. The humour is mostly tame and PG-rated, but much like Trey Parker and Matt Stone, writer/director team Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar provide some of their own voices, and the pace of the film is hyperactive and relentless. The original animated series was distributed by Aardman (makers of the Wallace & Gromit films), and you can see a bit of that influence in there too.

I liked the fact that they didn’t have to resort to a raunchier sense of humour, and they rely on off-the-wall visual gags (which works well, because they require no translation). Still, it only made me laugh in bits and pieces, and without the occasional breather, the excitable voices can really get on your nerves after a full 70 minutes. This might have been okay if I had been really pulled into the story and characters, but the plot felt so random that I just couldn’t keep up after a while. I suppose that’s to be expected for a wacky movie like this, but I found my mind wandering about halfway through.

As such, A Town Called Panic is probably the kind of thing I would appreciate in much shorter installments, and indeed, it did make me curious to see the original show. There’s no question that it’s an impressive achievement to produce a feature-length stop motion movie under any circumstances, and I have to give the filmmakers credit for that. There is a charming aspect to the film, it has a unique look, and I’m certainly glad to know that films like this are out there, even if ultimately it didn’t do much for me.

Either way, you might not want to take my rating at face value, especially if you’re an animation buff. You’ll probably know if this is the kind of thing you’re likely to enjoy, and that being the case, you may have a better time with it than I did. I imagine that it also plays a lot better in a group atmosphere on the big screen (it won the Audience Award at Fantastic Fest), so with the movie currently getting a scattered theatrical release throughout the U.S. and Canada, you should definitely keep an eye on your local listings. — Sean

SCORE: 2 stars



Recommended If You Like: South Park, Pingu, Robot Chicken, Wallace and Gromit

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  • Falsk

    You know, after hearing your review on the podcast I was really nervous going into this. I was preparing for the worst, but in the end didn’t find the voices nearly as grating as you made it seem. Granted, I was sort of raised on anime and all sorts of squeaky high-pitched madness, but I fell into the rhythm of the film pretty easily. I thought the animation style was silly and charming, though there was little else holding it together. It definitely was too long and I think that’s a result of trying to stretch something that works in a 20-minute format into a feature film, but I think you could do a lot worse with 80 spare minutes to kill.

    It’s certainly not something I feel the need to revisit like “Fantastic Mr. Fox” or any normal feature length film that’s based on story, but in the end I had a lot of fun which is all I ever want from an animated comedy about indians and cowboys. And, my God, I loved that loud-mouthed farmer.

  • http://www.gallowmere.com Senor G

    You lasted a lot longer than I did. I watched it for about 5 minutes before shutting it off.

    On a side note, if you are looking for a decent stop motion animated feature, you might want to check out Mary & Max. That one also goes on too long, and had characters I could hardly relate to, but it had an interesting visual style, and was pretty mature without going to the usual tropes such as gritty realism or being too raunchy.

  • David

    I caught this on the Sundance Channel one night and decided to give it a shot. Glad I did. I found it to be a gem of a film layered with great guffaws of audio and visual humor.
    Sometimes I chuckle to myself remembering lines and gags from the farm animals and their frenetic antics.
    I’m glad I stumbled upon it. It’s well worth 75 minutes of your time.

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