A Town Called Panic
Directed by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar
In many ways, the agrarian hamlet where the madcap French claymation television series and feature film A Town Called Panic are set—the town of Panic, I suppose—is weathering the same crises as most small communities: the breakdown of the family unit, pollution and environmental degradation, encroaching real estate development, and increasing numbers of upwardly mobile folks moving in from across the tracks. Except in Panic these things are happening all at once, at a breakneck pace and in comically exaggerated proportions.
They're also translated into the film's outrageous terms and aesthetic, wherein the characters are all stop-motion animated toys who seem as impervious to most of the violence they endure as vintage Warner Bros. cartoons, and rattle off quips and non-sequiturs nearly too fast for our subtitles-skimming eyes to process. Though rooted in reality, the world where Panic takes place is an endlessly inventive and clever alternate universe, where cows act like dogs and chase passing cars, walls are bouncy as trampolines when bodies are drop-kicked around houses, and cell phone reception at the planet's core is crystal clear. It's something like a Pop Art version of Wallace & Gromit with ample borrowings from surrealist and Dadaist cinema.
The rather unconventional family fighting to preserve Panic lives in a coded single dad household, where Horse raises two rambunctious teenage boys: the older and wiser Indian, and the hyperactive, dim-witted Cowboy. The various custom-made pieces of furniture Horse uses around the house—which alternately presume that all he can do is stand on all fours and elsewhere require him to walk on his hind legs, which he does effortlessly—are one of the film's best recurring visual gags. Their neighbors, the farmer Stephen and his wife Janine, and the crossing guard Policeman who supervises the intersection of their driveways, round out the residents of Panic. Just as Horse puts the moves on the local music teacher, Madame Longray (also a horse), in hopes of giving his family some sense of nuclear normalcy, his boys accidentally destroy their home when their birthday gift plan backfires. That they do so by accidentally ordering 50 million bricks instead of fifty turns the two-family town into a wasteland of bricks and, however fleetingly, calls to mind visions of bulldozed neighborhoods in the South Bronx or along the Yangtze river. Left homeless, the trio strikes out on the film's cross- and intra-globe adventure.
Any and all political subtext—the tsunami that wipes out the devastated town a little more; the evil weapons experts carving up the South Pole one giant snowball at a time; the amphibious others from under the pond who threaten and eventually integrate Panic—figure only very obliquely and briefly between flurries of jokes, physical comedy and the delightfully imaginative possibilities available when your cast and set are made of toy miniatures. Some items, like cell phones and beer steins, are made minuscule to fit in characters' hands, while others appear normal size, like a tube of toothpaste so tall it hangs from Horse's bathroom ceiling. It's refreshing to find an animated film that's so thoroughly funny and visually rich from start to finish, and makes its messages available for discerning viewers without underlining them condescendingly. A Town Called Panic reminds us that Pixar isn't the only game in town.
Opens December 16 at Film Forum