In French it's called Panique Au Village, implying, merely, a town where panic has occurred. But the English title of Belgian animators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar's strange and silly film goes right ahead and establishes its own municipality, whose very identity stems directly from the sudden uncontrollable anxiety and wildly unthinking behavior that goes on there. After spending 75 minutes in the place, you'll understand why.
Oddity is afoot at 1 Flowery Lane, Village, where Cowboy (voiced by Aubier), Indian (Bruce Ellison) and Horse (Patar) share a rundown but bright yellow house. It's Horse's birthday, and in addition to a chocolate hay bale and a dance party with the neighbors, his roommates decide to order up some bricks from the Internet and build their pal a barbecue. But by accident they order a million times as many bricks as they need, and the mishap sets in motion a journey to the center of the Earth, to the undersea world of the fish people who keep stealing our heroes' walls, and to the frozen tundra where they become briefly trapped inside a snowball ladling, penguin-shaped tank piloted by maniacal lab-coated scientists.
How this all involves the trio's loud-mouthed tractor-fetishist neighbor, the postman, the octopus drummer, or the bright-maned music-teacher mare on whom Horse has a crush, is not easy to explain. Nor is it even worth trying to explain. Just what did you expect from a central cast of old-fashioned fixed-posed figurines, which the filmmakers have described as flea-market orphans? Suffice to say that later there will be a battle using pigs and swordfish as ammunition.
A feature-length elaboration of their popular series of short TV spots, A Town Called Panic advances Aubier and Patar's manic and apparently meaningless agenda -- with delectable, unpredictable and totally irrational results. Unlike some other highlights from the great new wave of recent animation, this one wastes no time congratulating itself for achieving a childlike state. Instead it just stays resolutely in that playroom moment. Although children can enjoy it, the movie isn't for them so much as it is for the parents who'd let them tip over a trunk full of toys in the living room, then ask what they're up to and actually listen to the answer.
Probably that answer will be breathless, undaunted, a little hard to follow and a little exhausting. But it's also a refreshing approach to characterization and narrative logic. The process of stop-action animation is by nature not spontaneous, yet in A Town Called Panic, spontaneity rules. If anything, it's as if the filmmakers' labor-intensive technique has served only to keep their frivolity (barely) contained. Panic really can be reduced to child's play, apparently, and that makes it seem like a place worth visiting.
A Town Called Panic opens Friday, January 22, 2010 in Bay Area theaters.