A Town Called Panic

Movie review: 'A Town Called Panic' is a surreal riot

A cowboy, an Indian and a horse find adventure in "A Town Called Panic," a surreally silly film with low-tech charm.
A cowboy, an Indian and a horse find adventure in "A Town Called Panic," a surreally silly film with low-tech charm. (Zeitgeist Films)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010

One measure of a movie's quality -- or rather its originality -- is the so-called elevator pitch. How easily, in other words, can its plot, its characters, its style be summed up in the few words allotted to your average elevator conversation.

By that measure, at least, the feature-length animated film "A Town Called Panic" is one heck of a cinematic accomplishment.

How about this: "Toy Story" on acid?

Though that's not exactly right, the movie is a tripped-out take on the secret life of playthings. Its heroes, after all, are a crudely painted plastic cowboy (called Cowboy), an Indian figurine (called Indian) and a toy horse (known, unsurprisingly, as Horse). Like the army soldiers featured in that 1995 Pixar film, Cowboy's and Indian's feet are fused together with little pieces of plastic, so they waddle around adorably.

But "Panic" doesn't rely on computer graphics. Rather, it's low-tech stop motion, a technique that's central to its abundant charms. So, it's a "Fantastic Mr. Fox" rip-off then? No, that's not quite it either.

"Mr. Bill" . . . for a new generation? "Thomas the Tank Engine" . . . for grown-ups? Gumby and Pokey . . . but with brains?

Have I mentioned that the whole thing is in French?

None of those descriptions is entirely right. But then again, none is entirely wrong either.

Based on a cult Belgian TV show, "A Town Called Panic" has the look of Claymation, the edginess -- and falsetto vocal work -- of "Mr. Bill," the deliberately clumsy special effects of "Thomas," and a silliness that is by turns cerebral, surreal and hilarious. It's the kind of anarchic fare that will appeal not just to cool kids, but to any adult who has had it with cookie-cutter family-friendly films that cater to the least common denominator.

The story (by writer-directors St├ęphane Aubier and Vincent Patar) gets going when Cowboy (voice of Aubier) and Indian (Bruce Ellison) decide to build Horse (Patar) a barbecue grill for his birthday. The pair is none too bright, however. Horse, as it turns out, is the only one with much, well, horse sense.

When Cowboy and Indian accidentally order too many bricks -- by a factor of, like, a million -- a chain of bizarre, yet in this context wholly plausible, events occurs, including the theft of their house by a family of evil, Black Lagoon-esque swamp creatures, and the subsequent enslavement of our heroes by a trio of mad scientists traveling around inside a giant, robotic penguin.

Trust me, all of this makes perfect sense, in a dream-logic kind of way.

In the end, it's easier to say what "A Town Called Panic" isn't. It isn't derivative. It isn't dull. And it isn't educational. Except perhaps in the most subversive sense.

That's because what it is, is this: an utterly delightful excursion to a place where far too few films these days ever take us -- whether they be for children or for grown-ups, animated or live action. That place is called the realm of the imagination. And "A Town Called Panic" is its capital city.

*** Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains cartoon violence and naughty words, only a couple of which are actually translated. In French with subtitles. 98 minutes.

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