Monday, December 14, 2009

An Animated Town Called Panic

It is a Belgian Toy Story, but with more attitude. Based on a series of short cartoons that developed a cult following around the world, St├ęphane Aubier and Vincent Patar return their bucolic country village entirely inhabited by those little plastic toy figures that are always getting stepped on and clogging up vacuum cleaners with the feature film incarnation of A Town Called Panic (trailer here), an official (out of competition) selection of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival that opens this Wednesday in New York.

Cowboy and Indian tend to bicker like children, but their third roommate Horse usually acts as a peacekeeper. When left to their own devices though, they cause no end of trouble. Take for instance their ill-advised plan to build Horse a barbeque for his birthday. Intending to buy fifty bricks over the internet, they accidentally order fifty million, which launches a dizzying chain of increasingly unlikely but madly inventive events.

Though the characters of Panic are inexpressive by their molded plastic nature, the film’s distinctive voice talent infuses them with personality. Vincent Patar lends a reassuringly deep and mature voice to Horse. While St├ęphane Aubier sounds a bit Mr. Bill-ish as the anxious Cowboy, Bruce Ellison’s nasal quality definitely suits the snippy Indian. Perhaps most effective though is French actress Jeanne Balibar, who makes the equine music teacher Madame Longray, the object of Horse’s affections, sound appropriately seductive and sophisticated (for a plastic toy).

Part of Panic’s eccentric charm is the deliberately low-tech stop-motion animation, which aptly fits its toy characters wobbling along on their plastic bases. However, the simplicity of the animatronics should not be interpreted as a crudeness of style. In truth, Panic’s world is surprisingly detailed and utterly charming. In many ways, it acts as a refreshing alternative to the scrupulously sweet and smoothly rendered animated films cranked out by Disney and Pixar. (You probably will not be seeing a character named “Indian” from those politically correct studios anytime soon either.)

Still, Panic is by-and-large suitable for family viewing, though parents should be advised there is plenty of Tom & Jerry style mayhem and the characters occasionally tell each other off with some colorful language (they call each other “bastards” a few times and it is always quite amusing when they do). The French language Panic might also be some young viewers’ first experience with subtitles, but it would be an accessible and engaging film for them to start with.

Above all, Panic is very funny film that takes some wild flights of fancy. No rules seem to apply here, yet that anarchy suits it just fine. This really is a thoroughly entertaining animated film all ages should be able to enjoy. One of twenty films officially still in the running for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award, the subtitled Panic is surely one of the longer long shots of the field, but it truly deserves a nomination. It opens Wednesday (12/16) at Film Forum.