Created by animators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, A Town Called Panic is a 2009 Belgian stop-motion film that, whilst only 75 minutes long, is totally bonkers for every single one of them. The first stop-motion film to be played at the Cannes Film Festival, it is based on Aubier and Patar’s series of shorts of the same name from 2000 that were dubbed into English with Alexander Armstrong, Lucy Montgomery and John Sparkes (British readers may also remember their brilliantly mad Cravendale adverts from a few years ago). As of yet, there is no mention of the film receiving similar treatment, though the language barrier actually helps to add an extra layer of chaos to proceedings for non-French speakers; the characters talk and shout very quickly at one another, often in unusual voices, making it sound like a stream of amusingly unintelligible gibberish at times.
Cowboy, Indian and Horse are the three protagonists, the inhabitants of one of the two houses that make up the Town of the title. The other residents, like Cowboy, Indian and Horse, are all classic townsfolk figures from children’s playsets, such as Policeman, Postman, Steven the farmer and his wife Janine, and their assorted farm animals, who all attend the music class of Horse’s love interest Madame Longrée, just as nature intended.
The story begins with Cowboy and Indian forgetting Horse’s birthday, and in their panic (heh) decide to build him a barbecue as their gift. Indian goes on ‘briquenet.com’ to order the 50 bricks they require for their project, but gets distracted before confirming the order. Cowboy inadvertently puts a mug on the 0 key, causing Indian to accidentally order 50 million bricks, which promptly turn up in a seemingly never-ending stream of trucks delivering 50 bricks at a time. A simple mistake, but it’s from this mistake that the insane, unpredictable story spirals out wildly.
What follows is a seemingly random series of events that follow no real logic, almost as if the story is being made up on the spot – though it’s the unexpectedness of the adventure that makes it so enjoyable. The trio have their house destroyed and their new walls stolen repeatedly, they journey to the centre of the earth, to the Arctic wastes, and to the bottom of the sea. They get trapped by a giant mechanical penguin controlled by super-strong scientists who are throwing huge snowballs at wild animals miles away, just because they can (but does that mean they should?). Throughout their quest to retrieve their walls, Horse is repeatedly being called by Madame Longrée to find out why he’s missing the music lessons he signed up for, whether he’s at the centre of the earth or in the house of some fish people that she somehow knows the phone number of.
The style of animation used in A Town Called Panic is called ‘puppetoon’, and is like a hybrid of classic Cel animation and stop-motion. As in stop-motion, the world is made up of physical, live-action models, but rather than moving constituent parts of a larger figure a tiny amount between each frame, the entire figure is removed and replaced with another in a different position to create the movement required, like the individual drawings of Cel animation; 1500 individual figures were used to create A Town Called Panic. As with any animation style, the smaller the difference between the figures, the smoother the movement. In this film the difference between the figures in each frame is often huge, giving them a sense of wild, unbound movement. It may appear basic at first, but it’s wonderfully charming and has a surprising level of depth for a relatively simple technique.
The combination of traditional children’s toys, the boundless energy of the characters and storytelling, and the extreme jumps in logic and location give the film the feel of a child playing, making up fantastical stories with things from their toy box. This sense is heightened by many of the objects the characters interact with being too big for them, or are even human objects that are the same size as them, such as the toothpaste tube, hairdryer and perfume bottle in their bathroom. The inclusion of these objects often give the appearance of a homemade playset, or an unusually-proportioned dolls’ house.
A Town Called Panic is a wonderful little oddity, full of energy and originality, totally lacking in logic, but absolutely deserving of a watch. If the relentless energy and enthusiasm of the film becomes too much for one sitting, you could even follow Roger Ebert’s suggestion and “watch it a chapter or two at a time, it should hold up nicely”. However you decide to watch it, you’ll be hard-pressed not to have a happily perplexed smile on your face throughout.