Film Review: A Town Called Panic

Some people have the wrong idea about Belgium. They consider it a country which is lovely to look at but otherwise very dull. As evidence they cite how hard it is to name any famous Belgians beyond the fictitious detectives Hercule Poirot and Tintin. Maybe these ‘Belgiphobes’ should be rounded up and taken to see ‘A Town Called Panic’, as anywhere that can produce something as funny and delightfully off-the-wall as this animated feature can scarcely be regarded as boring.

If there is any justice, then the list of well-known Walloons will be swiftly doubled by the addition of Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier who created the splendidly silly characters and situations in both the film and the original TV series which spawned it. ‘A Town Called Panic’ was created in 2000 and first seen in the UK on the Nickelodeon channel. Since then, its style and concept have been blatantly ‘borrowed’ by a certain milk company for advertising purposes. No matter, for the film of ‘Panic’ is a smooth and successful transition from the small to the big screen.

Anyone who was brought up on children’s television shows (most of us one imagines) will recognise the basic set up in ‘A Town Called Panic.’ The film is set in a brightly coloured world populated by larger than life characters that all live within shouting distance of one another. Humans and animals, or at least little plastic approximations of such, live together in harmony with an apparently unspoken agreement that neither shall end up as the other’s lunch. In short, it is the sort of anodyne fantasy that is regularly fed to the young, thereby guaranteeing terrible disillusionment in later life.

The town of Panic, as the name suggests, is far from peaceful for as soon as the sun rises the tiny population (in more than one sense) set about their daily business at an alarmingly frantic pace. Take Stephen the farmer, for example, who exists in a permanent state of hyperactivity bordering on rage. He has scarcely finished his ridiculously oversized breakfast before he is marching his herd of beasts up and down the country lanes for no real reason at all other than fulfilling his vocational instincts. Panic is what Toy Town might be like should Noddy ever decide to slip crack cocaine into the water supply.

The film’s story involves Cowboy, Indian and Horse (or Monsieur Cheval in his more poetic French.) They are exactly as their names suggest: a figurine of a Cowboy, a Native American and … you can probably work it out. The trio live in what must be the most bizarre house-share ever with Horse acting as the mature and patriarchal influence over his petulant housemates. Cowboy and Indian, on the other hand, behave like a pair of childish brats, squabbling and playing tricks on each other. They have a knack for causing trouble and, even when it is not entirely their fault, misfortune manages to find them anyway.

When the pair realise that they have forgotten Horse’s birthday they attempt a quick fix solution which, thanks to a horrendous typo, results in the complete destruction of their home. The exasperated Horse attempts to organise the rebuilding efforts but this proves tricky. Not only are Cowboy and Indian completely useless at the construction game (poor old Horse picked the wrong members of the Village People to live with) but mysterious aquatic creatures steal the building materials.

What starts with a disaster becomes an epic quest to recover our heroes’ home, leading them on a fantastical Jules Verne style journey to the centre of the Earth, across the Arctic wastes and, finally, into the ocean depths. For Cowboy and Indian this is all exciting hi-jinks but for Horse it is a bothersome diversion from his attending music lessons, where he hopes to win the equine heart of the teacher, Madame Longrée.

How much you enjoy ‘A Town Called Panic’ depends on your sense of humour. If you prefer your laughs to be on the surreal side then Panic is a place which you will enjoy visiting. The film moves at a whirlwind pace and is chock full of sight gags and comic inventiveness. Although it thrives on its own brand of daftness, there is genuine intelligence and imagination behind the movie. The stop motion animation is made to look cheap and simplistic but one imagines that a lot of painstaking effort went into the production process.

‘A Town Called Panic’ is a gleefully escapist seventy-five minutes of pleasure which I could have happily watched for longer but it is always best to be left wanting more. The film is family-friendly too, as long as your child is not allergic to subtitles. If they have never seen a foreign language film before, ‘Panic’ would be a good first stop in the grand tour that awaits them.

About Alan Diment

Is a freelance writer and film critic. A total film buff who lives and breathes movies.

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