A Town Called Panic

Pure whimsical cinema, nothing more, nothing less

Feb 3, 2010 at 12:00 am
The underlying concept is everything in A Town Called Panic. To try to ascribe motives any deeper than child-like glee to Belgian animators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar would be an exercise in folly.

Inspired by Chuck Jones and channeling the logic and perspective of kids noisily playing with their toys, the duo has crafted 75 minutes of pure cinematic whimsy, using stop-action animation to give life to inflexible plastic toys. And far from Pixar’s slick and meticulously plotted Toy Story flicks, A Town Called Panic presents itself as if it were scripted and directed by an 8-year-old child. You get the feeling this is the kind of movie Michel Gondry would have made in fourth grade.

To recount the plot would be a waste of time since there really isn’t one. Suffice to say it concerns the endless (and increasingly outlandish) this-then-that mishaps of three housemates: Cowboy, Indian and Horse. They live in the countryside and are neighbors with a hot-tempered farmer, his long-suffering wife and a menagerie of animals. There’s also Policeman, Postman and Horse’s fondest desire, the orange-maned piano teacher Madam Longree. Everyone and everything the trio does, says or encounters is informed by how kids play with their toys. There are ridiculous plot twists, exaggerated "adult" behaviors, and even comically absurd voices. Take BFFs Cowboy and Indian, for instance. One has a gun and the other a bow and arrow. Cowboy screeches, Indian mumbles. That’s as much character development as you get. Nothing about either suggests they are anything other than hyperactive kids who make endlessly brainless choices.

The deadpan, idiotic humor isn’t smart enough to qualify as witty, doesn’t make enough of a point to be called satire but embraces absurd slapstick and imaginative energy with such merry abandon that you can’t help but be amused. And if it comes across as hysterically illogical and emotionally over-excited well that’s the point. Anyone who has spent anytime around kids will know exactly what Aubier and Patar are trying to achieve. Think of it as Robot Chicken for kids — kids who know how to understand how people talk in Belgium.

Inspired by a series of five-minute Belgian TV bumpers (and now released into the wild by Aardman Animation Studios), A Town Called Panic is pretty much an animated lark and would fare better as an extended short, not a full-fledged feature.

Nevertheless, if you’re in the right mindset (or on the right hallucinogens) there’s enough humor and charming inventiveness to play along.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 9:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 5-6 and at 5:15 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 7. and April 3. Call 313-833-3237.