“Your car is completely broken”
Based on the animated series of the same name, Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar‘s feature length Panique au village [A Town Called Panic] is a far cry from short five-minute skits. With that said, it’s easy to see how it was born from such a format considering the irreverent humor running rampant through its comedy of errors connected by the thinnest layer of glue. This is how they travel from a celebratory night of birthday festivities for Horse (Patar) to the undersea theft of brick walls to a mechanical snowball-throwing penguin to utter farmland chaos back home without missing a beat. Aubier and Patar could put their tiny stop motion clay figurines into whatever situation imaginable and it’d make sense. They’re playing without rules and it’s delightful.
The secret ingredient is a duo of idiots by the name of Cowboy (Aubier) and Indian (Bruce Ellison). Horse has the distinct pleasure of being their landlord/roommate so of course they’ll want to do something special for him when the old birthday comes around (if they remember, of course). But when the thought of buying fifty bricks for a barbecue grows out of control into an accidental order of fifty million, how can things not go wrong? If this were you or I living in the real world the transaction would be verified and cancelled, no harm or foul. In Panic, however, every molehill becomes a mountain because the name isn’t some remnant of a long ago settlement. Each inhabitant has two speeds: harried and crazed.
Horse is the only one with his head, but his friendship with Cowboy and Indian renders it tough to get ahead of whatever situation they thrust him into. Their neighbor Janine (Véronique Dumont) is actually the most nonplussed of the menagerie except she’s afforded little opportunity to put out the town’s fires when she’s busy putting out the ones set by her manic lunatic of a husband Steven (Benoît Poelvoorde) at home. So while he’s screaming and she’s fixing, Horse is relaxing in the down time between worrying about what Mrs. Longray (Jeanne Balibar) thinks about him as a potential boyfriend. And with everyone so preoccupied in his/her own troubles, the time for mischief is Cowboy and Indian’s for the taking. They do not disappoint.
I love the crude animation style utilized as it takes me back to my childhood watching old episodes of “The Gumby Show” or even the wonderful Teeny Little Super Guy from “Sesame Street”. Half the time the characters are merely being propped up and down with extra clay or molded stands and the other half they are fully animated with whatever point of articulation the artist needs to get the shot right. The trees are two-dimensional in the way a child’s train set environment would be and the main characters are little more than plastic figures recreated in clay to be bent every which way. Add cotton fire extinguishers and cellophane water and this DIY aesthetic oozes charm from all sides.
As for the humor, as soon as you think you have a handle on what’s going on, Aubier and Patar throw a wrench in the proceedings and literally change the entire set to fit their wild ideas. Just when you get used to farm animals that talk, three flipper and goggle-wearing creatures we never see out of their suits arrive with human names like Gérard (Frédéric Jannin). Finally used to the simple plot of land on either side of Policeman’s tiny tollbooth? Suddenly we’re whisked away to the center of the earth and inexplicably into a snowstorm with batty scientists possessed by super strength and a dark humor. There’s no sense of comfort except in the knowledge that things will never go the “safe” route.
Is it a tad long? Probably. I can see the brief five-minute capsules proving much more potent in their efficiency. But that’s not to say the long A Town Called Panic doesn’t still work by virtue of its absurd nature. I could watch/listen to Steven running around like a chicken with his head cut-off for hours (I say this knowing 60-minutes of him at an eleven out of ten would most likely become insufferable) because it’s a riot in the moment. Who thinks to quiet things down for a moment of Janine spreading Nutella on bread and filling a coffee cup only to bring in Steven like a bat out of hell to consume and/or break everything in his path? Aubier and Patar are geniuses.
The same thing goes for turning unassuming scientists into wild feral creatures praying to the God of anarchy and running amok unchecked in the snow. You literally have no idea what to expect and neither to the characters onscreen. One minute Horse is supervising Cowboy and Indian’s mason work on their house and the next the two screw-ups are playing ping pong off-screen. One minute the police booth is the size of an outhouse and the seconds later it’s Fort Knox. The scale rises and falls to the filmmakers’ whims and the humor remains outside the box and unpredictable to keep us on our toes enough to forget how nonsensical it all is. At a certain point you gleefully crave the next explosion knowing Panic can’t slow down.
courtesy of Zeitgeist Films