With all the high-profile animated movies out there now, it would be a loss if "A Town Called Panic" was stampeded in the shuffle. This marvelous little Belgian gem is making the rounds, and it's as funny, and often as inventive, as, for starters, "Up" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox." A spinoff of a popular Belgian TV series, it was the only stop-motion animated film ever chosen as an official selection at the Cannes film festival.
It has no elaborate computer-generated effects, no 3-D. Nothing is hand-drawn, as in "The Princess and the Frog." Instead, it opts for one of the oldest techniques in the biz. And, unlike the stop-motion "Mr. Fox," it dispenses with celebrity voices altogether. All we see are animated plastic toys – a horse, a cowboy, an Indian chief, tractors, pigs, cows, deep-sea divers – of the sort you might find strewn across a boy's messy bedroom floor.
Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, the Belgian filmmaking team responsible for "A Town Called Panic," have described how they came to create their characters: "We hit on the idea while visiting flea markets and garage sales on Sundays. Because dinosaurs and the figurines from manga [Japanese comics] were all the rage, kids had lost interest in older, basic toys like cowboys and Indians and farm animals. So we decided to rescue these poor orphans."
The rescue operation takes the form of a crazy-quilt story line – the kind a kid might concoct on that messy bedroom floor – that defies easy summarization. Essentially, Horse, Cowboy, and Indian live together in a ramshackle house in the countryside next door to their belligerent neighbor, Steven, who cares only for his tractor. For a surprise birthday present, Cowboy and Indian order 50 bricks to build Horse a barbecue – except the order gets fouled up and 50 million bricks are delivered instead.
From there, things get increasingly out of hand – or hoof. Horse falls for his piano teacher, Madame Longrée (she has a crimson mane and big, big eyes), but, along with his two cohorts, gets sucked into an undersea alternate universe. (The entryway is a pond on the property.) All is right in the end, but not before the characters are put through enough paces to make even a Rube Goldberg contraption seem rudimentary.
I don't wish to make this film sound as if only 8-year-olds will enjoy it. In its own wiggy way, it's a sophisticated fantasia that adults should enjoy equally. (In other words, it's the perfect family entertainment.) It draws on a vast storehouse of influences – including Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, the "Toy Story" films, and "South Park," as well as such marvels as "The Triplets of Belleville" and "Monty Python's Flying Circus" – but its humor and way of seeing are all its own. The plastic figures move with a herky-jerky rapidity that is matched by the blurty, rapid-fire voices. (It's in French with English subtitles.) The frenetic pace has a lovely, slapstick grace, and some of the visual throwaways, like the octopus that plays drums at Horse's party, or Horse's lovely mane-nuzzling dream dance with his paramour, are wondrous and funny at the same time.
After a longish lull, there is much to be thankful for these days in the realm of animation – not only the Pixar films and the marvelous movies of Hayao Miyazaki (most recently "Ponyo"), but also such one-of-a-kind personal memoirs as "Persepolis" and "Waltz With Bashir." In its own pipsqueak way, "A Town Called Panic" holds its own in this select company.