A place worth visiting

A Town Called Panic

The animation’s great, sure, but is Panic a world-class city?

The animation’s great, sure, but is Panic a world-class city?

Rated 4.0

In French, it’s called Panique au Village, implying, merely, a town where panic has occurred. (Or maybe implying a headline for some affected music-mag trend piece about Panic! at the Disco.) But the English title of Belgian animators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s strange and silly film goes right ahead and establishes its own municipality, whose very identity stems directly from the sudden uncontrollable anxiety and wildly unthinking behavior that goes on there.

You’ll understand why after spending 75 minutes in the place, tucked in amongst its cast of old-fashioned fixed-posed plastic figurines, which the filmmakers have described as flea-market orphans. Or maybe, after even fewer than 75 minutes, you’ll just want to lie down. Or maybe both. Enthusiasts of stillness and coherence are advised to enter at their own risk, for A Town Called Panic is not a tidy little enclave of Toy Story-style nostalgia.

Oddity is afoot at 1 Flowery Lane, Village, where Cowboy (voiced by Aubier), Indian (Bruce Ellison) and Horse (Patar) share a rundown but nonetheless beaming-bright yellow house. (Brightness is a rarity of real value here, in more ways than one.) It’s Horse’s birthday, and besides springing for a chocolate hay bale and a dance party with the neighbors, his roommates hastily decide to order up some bricks from the Internet and build their pal a barbecue. But by accident, they order a million times more bricks than they need, and the mishap sets in motion a marvelously art-directed journey to the center of the Earth; followed by a journey to the undersea world of the fish people who keep stealing walls; and then to the frozen tundra, to become briefly trapped inside a snowball-ladling, penguin-shaped tank piloted by maniacal lab-coated scientists. In our heroes’ defense, not to mention the filmmakers’, days like these are not always easy to plan for.

Likewise, how all of this mayhem involves the trio’s loudmouthed tractor-fetishist neighbor, their postman, the octopus drummer or the bright-maned music-teacher mare on whom Horse has a crush, is not easy to explain. Nor is it really worth trying to explain. Although it does somehow feel important to add that later on there will be a battle using pigs and swordfish as ammunition.

It also does begin to suggest the logical conclusion to our recent vogue of movie-playtime quirk worship—and as such should not be expected to seem even the least bit logical or conclusive. Frankly, nor could it be expected to seem as vital and enjoyable as it actually, blessedly is. A feature-length elaboration of their popular series of short TV spots, A Town Called Panic merely advances Aubier and Patar’s manic and apparently meaningless agenda, with results less ingratiating than the average Michel Gondry set piece but less anti-ingratiating than a Robot Chicken short. On a map, it’s somewhere in between.

Unlike some other highlights from the great new wave of recent animation, this one wastes no time congratulating itself for achieving a childlike state. Instead it just jumps and stays resolutely inside that special rumpus-room moment. Although children can enjoy it, the movie isn’t for them so much as it is for the parents who’d let them tip over a trunk full of toys on the floor, then ask what the kids are up to and actually listen to their answer.

That answer, you’ll know from experience, may be breathless, undaunted, a little hard to follow and more than a little exhausting. But you’ll also know, or hope, or see, that in this case it’s a refreshing approach to characterization and narrative logic. The process of stop-motion animation is by nature not spontaneous, yet somehow, in A Town Called Panic, spontaneity rules. The accumulating nonsense of the story only goes to show how meticulously devised are the means of its delivery. If anything, it’s as if the filmmakers’ labor-intensive technique has served to keep their frivolity in check. That is, at least until it spills inevitably out of check. Aubier and Patar would have us believe that Panic really can be reduced to child’s play, which just makes it seem all the more like a place worth visiting.