The Toy Story toys never had an adventure like this
by molly templeton
A TOWN CALLED PANIC: Directed by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar. Cinematography, Jan Vandenbussche. Editor. Anne-Laure Guégan. Music, Dionysos, French Cowboy. Voiced by Stéphane Aubier, Véronique Dumont, Bruce Ellison, Frédéric Jannin and Vincent Patar. Zeitgeist Films, 2009. Not rated. 75 minutes.
Every time I try to describe the plot of the stop-motion Belgian delight A Town Called Panic, I sound like a 6-year-old on a record-breaking sugar high: “So there are these three friends that live in a house, but they’re actually plastic figurines called Horse, Indian and Cowboy, except they aren’t really a horse, a cowboy and an Indian, because Horse reads the paper while sitting on the couch (he isn’t very good at piano, not having fingers and all) and Cowboy and Indian aren’t really a cowboy and an Indian except that Cowboy has a rifle and Indian has a bow and arrow. They’re called that because that’s what their plastic bodies are, like their neighbors are Postman and Policeman.
“When Cowboy and Indian find out it’s Horse’s birthday, they try to order 50 bricks to build him a barbecue, but someone sets a coffee cup on the keyboard and enters a lot of zeroes and they order 50 million bricks, which they hide on top of the house, which sinks into the ground, and then they have to build a new house, but these sea creatures come out of the neighbor’s pond and steal their walls. Also, there are bricks all over the pretty paper maché village where they live, and there are also ninja scientists who truck around in the snow in a giant metal penguin-tank with a head that comes off and scoops up perfect giant snowballs that the scientists throw at unsuspecting wildlife. Also, the neighbor’s farm animals are all sentient and also get used as projectile weapons while fighting the sea creatures, who are named things like Gerard.”
Two things should be clear from that explanation: A Town Called Panic is magically strange, and A Town Called Panic is not for everyone. Its logic — and it does have a certain one-thing-leads-to-another logic — is surreal and wonderful and ridiculous: While falling into the center of the earth, Horse, Indian, Cowboy and Gerard play cards and get good cell phone reception. The ocean floor is accessible through a pond. Woolly mammoths don’t like giant metal penguins. The story leaps from absurd moment to absurd moment with delightful abandon, and all the while, the plastic figurines that are the characters up the amusement levels with their built-in limitations: Like many toys, the bipeds have their feet attached to a little platform, so they walk funny (Horse suffers no such indignity). Their motion is limited, impossibly broad and, like the rest of the animation, endlessly inventive. Water pours across the screen in plastic waves; a fire extinguisher covers everything in cotton; at the bottom of the sea, an elegantly creepy pearl fountain is for sale, and Gerard’s house is upside down.
A Town Called Panic is a speedy, eccentric detour; it doesn’t look, act or sound like anything I’ve seen in years. It’s based on a Belgian TV series, and its creators, Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar (who voice Cowboy and Horse, respectively), are more than familiar with the world in which they wreak extreme, elaborate, detailed havoc. Panic is a tough one to watch on a TV screen, as the detail in some scenes gets lost. (Its other failing? The women don’t get to have adventures, though Madame Longray, the music teacher, is as handy with car repair as she is with music class.) See it in a theater, with your absurdity acceptance levels set to “high” and “giddy.”
A Town Called Panic opens Friday, April 16, at the Bijou.