A Town Called Panic
Not rated, 75 min. Directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar. Voices by Vincent Patar, Stéphane Aubier, Bruce Ellison, Jeanne Balibar, Nicolas Buysse.
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.
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