I don’t want to make outrageous claims, but my first viewing of A Town Called Panic cured my nasty hangover. My girlfriend’s first viewing cured her cold. It’s unclear just what sort of powers A Town Called Panic has, but they are mighty. And they are benevolent.
This feature length version of a Belgian kid’s show (Vincent Patar and
Stéphane Aubier produce five minute adventures which have been
repackaged and translated to air on Nicktoons in America) is an amazing
head trip, a glorious journey right inside a semi-innocent imagination.
A Town Called Panic follows the adventures of three
friends who live together: the level headed, cool as a cucumber Horse,
and two best buddies Cowboy and Indian, who are mischievous
knuckleheads whose best intentions are always causing major problems
for everyone in town, including their neighbor the always-shouting
Stephen, his wife Nadine, their animals (who attend music school),
Policeman, Postman, and Miss Longray, the beautiful redheaded horse who
teaches music and who has won Horse’s heart.
The storytelling is classic kid ‘And then’ style: ‘And then they fell
in a hole in the ground and the hole led to the center of the Earth.
And then they climbed out of the hole and they were in the North Pole.
And then they saw a giant robot penguin and then the penguin scooped
them up and then three superstrong scientists put them to work. The
scientists were using the penguin to throw giant snowballs at woodland
creatures far away,” and the resulting narrative is delightfully stream
of consciousness and free form. It all begins when Cowboy and Indian
forget Horse’s birthday and rush to get him a present. Attempting to
build him a barbecue, they order bricks online, but instead of 50, they
end up with 50 million. By the end of the film they’ve discovered and
started a war with an undersea race, traveled the globe and endangered
Horse’s burgeoning love affair by constantly keeping him from attending
There’s no point in trying to get across to you the wonderful madness of A Town Called Panic.
It has to be seen to be believed, especially because the puppetoon
style is so distinctive, low tech and incredible. Most of the
characters are plastic molded figures, the sort you buy in large
plastic bags who have bases attached to their feet (think army men).
Each character’s real world analogue has little bearing on what they
are in Panic – Horse, for example, drives a little yellow car. Cowboy
and Indian carry none of the cultural baggage of their namesakes.
There’s a purity to the world in which they live, where each
character’s purpose and personality is defined only by how the creators
want them to be defined, that is exactly like a child’s game. But
there’s also a cutting subversiveness, surely unnoticed by kids, that
will delight adults.
The world in which the characters live is also extraordinarily tactile
and handmade. Blue cellophane stands in for water, while cotton puffs
are clouds (and fire extinguisher foam). Fire is represented by a
cardboard cut out of flames, and the small toys live in a world that is
partially scaled to them and partially filled with giant sized objects.
There’s a scene of Stephen eating a huge piece of toast that is
destined to be one of your favorite moments in cinema this century.
It’s a world not unlike what must have been in Michel Gondry’s head as
The best way to see A Town Called Panic is in the
original French. Usually I’m no purist for language in cartoons –
they’re all dubbed, after all – but in this case the voice work is so
unique and the French cadences so charming – ‘Mon Dieu!’ always sounds
better than ‘My God!’ – that the original is the only way to go. I
don’t know what the American release of the subtitled version will be,
but Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse will be playing it in January. The
question, of course, is whether or not little ones will enjoy a
subtitled movie as much as a dubbed one, and I think that A Town Called Panic is
so visually rich and so absorbing in its motion and energy, that
following the words won’t be as important to them. The subtitles do
come fast and furious, as many of the characters carry out hilarious
patter back and forth. But part of the hilarity of that patter is the
voice work by Patar as Horse, Aubier as Cowboy and Bruce Ellison as
I don’t know how this movie could be any better. It’s about as perfect
a film as I’ve seen, and perhaps the only way to improve upon it would
be to create a version that never ended. A version that just kept going
with the ‘And thens.’