So a cowboy, an Indian and a horse share a house…sounds like the setup for a dirty joke, but it’s actually the basis for the unusual and fascinating 2009 Belgian production A Town Called Panic, a low-budget high-energy film employing toy figurines and an abundance of anarchic spirit to get at the root of something beautiful: the youthful imagination.
Further detail into the story isn’t really necessary. This might seem a deficiency but is instead A Town Called Panic’s strongest attribute; rather than simply make a movie suitable for kids and their chaperons, for 75 minutes Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier effectively channel the wild and oft bizarre realms of child’s play.
There is a story of course, one that finds room for adventure, the fantastic, the absurd, the comedic and even a little romance, but rather than smooth out these elements in the manner of countless prior cinematic animations, A Town Called Panic unravels as if conjured up by a couple of youngsters with a bag full of toys and a surplus of ideas in the middle of an afternoon hangout.
The results resist easy comparison. Based on the Patar and Aubier-created TV series of the same name from the beginning of last decade (the pair later teamed for the award winning 2012 feature Ernest & Celestine), its episodes were distributed by Aardman Animations. However, in comparison to Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep, Patar and Aubier’ approach to stop-motion is a far more rugged affair, though it’s consistently inventive and visually attractive if understandably raw in a do-it-yourself sorta way.
In the end it’s perhaps a bit like a sleep-deprived and quite caffeinated version of Art Clokey’s Gumby, but with toys subbing for clay figures; by extension, Walter Williams’ Mr. Bill shorts for Saturday Night Live come to mind. If this sounds like a program crafted as much for adults as for their progeny, A Town Called Panic refreshingly resists an ironic sensibility.
As the dialogue includes a flurry of “adult” language, including “damn,” a few instances of “dumbass” and one “bastard” (and probably others not translated in the English subtitles), the movie’s certainly not streamlined to the kid-friendly norms of the multiplex. This may depress those who prefer their children’s entertainment strive for the wholesome, but the edgy language registers as in line with A Town Called Panic’s modus operandi; kid’s play, at least the kind that transpires when adults are assumed to be safely elsewhere, is anything but an antiseptic experience.
Indeed, Patar and Aubier’s narrative involves a party where one of the characters imbibes a little too heavily. This again integrates with Patar and Aubier’s purposes very nicely; developing minds are highly observant, and the adults in their imaginary worlds will definitely partake in adult activities not precluding a partier hitting the sauce with excess relish.
No doubt grownup viewers will have differing reactions, but in this observer’s view any questionable aspects are far preferable to the sort of obnoxious double entendres and frankly lame-ass pop-culture signifiers (e.g. soundtracks burdened with overplayed ‘80s hits) clearly designed to massage the nostalgia nodules of the parents in the theater or TV room.
But really, these matters of content are only a small portion of a tale that offers the delivery of 50 million bricks, a volcano in the center of the earth, underwater house-thieving gnome-like creatures and an arctic visit where a giant robot penguin lobs snowballs with its flippers. Those attempting to curb their offspring’s parroting of iffy phrases will want to investigate the assumedly politer English-dubbed alternative; as the original’s subtitles aren’t sparse and can unwind fairly quickly this version will be preferable for many young viewers.
A Town Called Panic ultimately falls a little short of masterful. Even at such a succinct running-time the whole flirts with creative overload, though in the end this flaw is complementary to the concept; the rapidly concocted fictions of youth rarely ended as well as they began after all, the lack of satisfactory closure helping to inspire continued bouts of unruly imagination.