Much love fell Wes Anderson’s way when his Fantastic Mr. Fox resurrected the kind of lovingly hand-crafted stop motion animation rarely seen since the heyday of Rankin-Bass. That was even real fur on the animal figurines! Alas, if Anderson wanted to go truly hardcore retro-whimsical, he would have gone the way of A Town Called Panic, a Belgian “puppetoon” populated by plastic toy figures who bounce when they talk, as though wielded by a child mid-play, and engage in exploits far sillier than mere chicken-looting.
Set in a charmingly rural town, the film’s misadventures begin when a cowboy and Indian, named Cowboy and Indian, wish to build a barbecue for the birthday of their roommate, a horse named Horse. After the pair, far dimmer than their wise and cucumber-cool equine pal, accidentally order a million more bricks than required, the excess weight sinks their spacious house into the ground. Naturally, this paves the way for an invasion by belligerent sea monsters, a plunge into the center of the earth, a trip to the Antarctic and an epic flood.
A Town Called Panic spins-off from a TV show that originally ran in five-minute chunks. Despite being super-sized, the film version plays about the same, retaining the light but hyperkinetic mien, but somehow never outstays its welcome. Animators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar aim for nothing more than a recreation of the unsophisticated, make-it-up-as-we-go-along nature of a kid playing with toys, which is both its limitation and its charm. It lacks the ambition and control of Toy Story, the bubbling melancholy of Michel Gondry or even the smart-ass satire of faux-kiddie shows like Wonder Showzen and certain Adult Swim members.
What it does have is a serious case of loopiness, which not only never lets up but only gets more inflamed as the film wears on. Aubier and Patier lean a touch too hard on anthropomorphic humor: Horse and his fellow farm animals make like their human neighbors and drink coffee, drive cars, read newspapers, pound on instruments and dance under disco balls.
But there is a frequent gag that’s pleasingly bizarre: I wouldn’t dream of revealing the purpose of an enormous mechanical penguin controlled by villainous mad scientists, whose motives prove to be far less nefarious than initially presumed. There’s no grand purpose to Panic, no technological or artistic breakthrough. For 75 mintues it made me laugh like a moron. Sometimes that’s enough. B+