A Town Called Panic
Directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar. Voices by Vincent Patar, Stéphane Aubier, Bruce Ellison, Jeanne Balibar, Nicolas Buysse. (2009, NR, 75 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 22, 2010
A Town Called Panic is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. This whimsical, thoroughly Belgian import imagines a primary-colored world in which the tiny toy cowboy, Indian, and horse figures we all had as children (well, those of us who grew up in a pre-Transformers world) come alive and find themselves in all manner of goofy yet compelling adventures. The subtitled, French-language film has won a cult following already – not least because its creators have been steadily churning out variations on this same claymation horse/cowboy/Indian theme for almost a decade now with occasional help from Britain's great Aardman Animations – and has picked up awards at both Sitges, the Spanish genre film fest, and at Austin's Fantastic Fest. That's as it should be: A Town Called Panic is nothing if not original (although you may have seen a snippet of it at the most recent Spike & Mike animation fest), combining as it does the autonomous magic inherent in stop-motion with a decidedly Belgian sense of the absurd. Fans of Belgian genre cinema, a niche group if ever there were one, will note and applaud the vocal participation of Benoît Poelvoorde, who was last seen stateside as the attention-starved psychopath in 1992's disturbing and brilliant Man Bites Dog. Regular audience members who inadvertently stumble into a A Town Called Panic screening, however, are going to have one of two reactions. The first will almost certainly be in bewilderment: The childlike Cowboy (Aubier) and Indian (Ellison) share a house with the more mature Horse (Patar), and they all live happily in a clay-made toy-figure village. The second will depend on the viewer’s animation patience. Even at a trim 75 minutes, A Town Called Panic feels overlong and colorfully overwhelming. It's one thing to watch Aubier and Patar's 10-minute episodes in a festival situation or while surfing the Web and quite another to spend more than an hour with these zany, nattering yokels (even if they do get into a really, really cool giant penguin robot at one point). The animation itself is superb, and the filmmakers long ago mastered the dreamy, stream-of-consciousness narrative tropes that work so well with stop-motion, but even with all that going for it, A Town Called Panic feels more like some exotic animated curiosity than a film to return to again and again.