A Town Called Panic Review

One of the best animated features of the past decade, and maybe the funniest, comes to R1 DVD.

Panic! What might a town called Panic be like and what types of inhabitants would reside in such a place? Those answers, and many more, are contained within the hour and a quarter of pure joy that make up Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s animated feature A Town Called Panic (Panique au village). Expanded from the Belgian television program, this 2009 movie follows the misadventures of what look to be rather immobile children’s toys but any comparisons to Toy Story must stop right there. This is the sort of plot-independent bliss that Pixar would never dare to expand upon, and it’s useless to try and measure the film against any of the animated features we’ve seen from major studios of late. What occurs in A Town Called Panic is often silly, hilarious and bordering on nonsensical. I loved it.

The stop motion film brings together friends and roommates Horse, Indian and Cowboy. The latter two seem to have a mental block regarding common sense and bicker with each other frequently while Horse stands as the responsible member of the household. Their neighbors include a farmer named Steven who has incredible anger management issues and his wife Jeanine. Some other residents of the town are Policeman, looking like he’s ready to put a beatdown on someone at any moment with his billy club always in position, music teacher and Horse’s crush Madame Longray, and Simon, who also works at the music school. A hint of a plot begins with Horse’s birthday and the hasty decision by Indian and Cowboy to build him a barbecue. But instead of ordering 50 bricks, the zero gets stuck in their online transaction and they end up with something like 50 million. Though revealing much more would puncture the fun, you can expect a large robotic penguin that throws powerful snowballs and a trio of bratty creatures who live underwater and meet up with our lead triumvirate.

There’s a great deal of humor of all types to be found here. Where one viewer might get a kick out of the more physical sort of gag, another can find enjoyment in the bizarre recurrence of waffles, waffles everywhere from this Belgian film. The voice actors, too, add an additional layer of silliness. The high-pitched sounds of Cowboy make him not just lacking in the attributes normally associated with someone of his ilk but also as childlike as his actions. We quickly come to expect something harsh and aggressive from Steven, and he rarely disappoints. You definitely have to be wired a certain way to respond to the humor here, but those that are indeed among the choice sort will go for the film in a big way. Its simplicity can be deceiving but there’s nothing unfinished or accidentally crude about A Town Called Panic. The making-of featurette on this release mentions that the production took five years of painstaking work by a small group of likeminded individuals. There is most certainly a method to the madness.

So to switch the knob to a slightly more discriminating inquiry, I do think this is a film that echoes across feature animation as more than simple sight gags and well-written quips (not that those attributes would be any less impressive by themselves). There are sizable debts owed to Keaton and Chaplin and Tati in how those masters could develop comedy and humanity from a place of daring visual absurdity. Animation grants more freedom, but using stop motion techniques and having the characters as toy figurines – to the point where pedestals tend to remain no matter what movements are made – must increase the challenge. Maybe there’s some wacky Tex Avery influence in there too. It’s tempered with strong pacing and, despite a mild sense of narrative anarchy at times, attention to the plot hasn’t been lost. Everything is coherent and sewn all the way through, albeit possibly in different colored threads.

The whole thing is simply an ideal experience. A wide CinemaScope aspect ratio is used to enhance the cinematic feel, and the eclectic mix of musical selections varies nicely from cool to whimsical to kitschy. At no point do thoughts of predictability or tiresome pandering ever occur. And it only gets funnier on a second viewing. This is something you must see to believe. Even if you have to borrow Steven’s tractor to do so (and he hates that).

The Disc

Settle down everyone. A Town Called Panic is being released by Zeitgeist Films on R1 DVD. It’s an excellent edition, with strong technical quality and several special features.

The progressive, anamorphic transfer looks fairly good. It’s not sparkling and slick and Disneyfied but the image is more than fine. These are filmed figurines we’re talking about and the rendering appears pleasing to the eye. Colors are true so don’t expect overly bright visuals at all times. Nothing in the way of damage is in the print. The dual-layered disc shows no noticeable signs of digital imperfections either. It’s in roughly the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

No English dubbing, thank goodness. The original French stereo track is the lone audio option. It sounds clean and effective. Volume levels are consistent even when music dominates the soundtrack. Optional subtitles are offered in English and are white in color. There’s a note on the back of the case that mentions that “[d]espite some mild bad language in French, this film is appropriate for children.” That seems to indicate that maybe some of that “mild bad language in French” was toned down in the translation.

The bonus material leads off with “La Fabrique de Panique” (54:52), a documentary detailing how the film came to be made. It’s especially good for people unfamiliar with the origins of these characters and their creators since we see some clips from earlier works like Pic Pic and Andre and the Panique au village television series. It’s also a fascinating peek behind the scenes of how the film was made. I came away with nothing but respect for Patar and Aubier and their cohorts. At one point mention is even made that Aardman agreed to provide a big chunk of financing for the film but eventually backed out when it became clear that artistic compromises would not be made just to please commercial backers.

As good as that piece is, it makes the odd assortment of supplements that remain comparatively disappointing. The video interviews (4:53) with directors Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier are little more than scraps, with only one of the seven lasting longer than a minute and no option available to view them all together. A Deleted Scenes Reel (7:23) also goes by quickly but these snippets of discarded parts don’t add much. A short called “Obsessive Compulsive” (1:39) is included as the winner of Zeitgeist’s Stop-Motion Animation Contest. It is indeed brief and I have to admit that that was about all I got out of the little film. Also included are Test Shot Comparisons (2:16) as well as the U.S. Theatrical Trailer (1:33), which is pretty entertaining. Some stills can be viewed in the Photo Gallery. A thin insert inside the transparent keepcase contains some information on “Obsessive Compulsive” and descriptions of the main characters in the main feature.

clydefro jones

Updated: Jul 16, 2010

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