A Town Called Panic imagines a small rural community rooted in maniacal delirium, where each character’s outlandish actions bounce off each other like pinballs eagerly awaiting their next ricochet. Cowboys, Native Americans, horses, cows, policemen, farmers, and sea creatures live side by side, populating a densely layered space of collective anarchy that expands borders and perspectives. Overreaction is paramount to this two-dimensional powder keg of kinetic motion, making actions and reactions crackle with unexpected glee. This crazy push-pull relationship between slapstick comedy and nation-building makes Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s animated film a joyous allegory for unlikely friendship, even if most if the story feels stuck in a weightless cloud of whimsy.
Based on the Belgium cult television series of the same name, A Town Called Panic constructs its animated universe out of figurines and models, contrasting extreme biomes, classic iconography, and familiar genre conventions. The most significant example comes in the cast of characters coexisting together in a host of jarring environments. Horse (voiced by Vincent Patar), Cowboy (Stephane Aubier), and Indian (Bruce Ellison) make up the unlikely trio at the center of the film, living under one country roof as a strange immediate family. Horse acts as the responsible parent, while Cowboy and Indian form the bumbling rag-tag team of misfit siblings. While plot isn’t at the forefront of A Town Called Panic, the relationship between these characters certainly is of crucial importance. As a result, watching these toy figurines interact in contradictory ways to their classic significance becomes both hilarious and unnerving.
After their house is destroyed by a well intended birthday gift gone array, Horse, Cowboy, and Indian are plucked from their rural setting and jettisoned into a cornucopia of different temperate zones, ranging from the Earth’s core brimming with lava, snowcapped tundra occupied by a giant mechanical snowball-throwing penguin, and finally a deep underwater labyrinth of sea creatures. Aubier and Patar pace this diversely wild ride wonderfully, mushrooming infectious energy into every silly confrontation and earned catharsis. As A Town Called Panic evolves beyond its surface level zaniness, the film reveals a profundity toward friendship and familial sacrifice that transcends bloodlines, stereotypes, and common sense.
Family matters most in A Town Called Panic, yet the characters themselves seemingly act on instinct rather than emotional connection. While this motif lends itself to the many high-octane chase scenes, battles, and disasters, it doesn’t elevate the few slow dialogue scenes in between. Clearly, these unsettled inanimate objects need to be immersed in the mayhem to gel as a family unit, and it seems there will always be destruction knocking down the door. But A Town Called Panic never forgets the potency of collective reconstruction despite crippling infrastructure and ideology by doubt and worry. Even when razor sharp swordfish, epic snowballs, and 50 million bricks descend from the skies, there’s always the optimism of friendship shielding the group from annihilation. Thankfully, Horse, Cowboy, and Indian never lose sight of this lesson, finding momentary peace within the chaos time after time.
This beautiful transfer highlights the crisp elaborate detail of the animated universe behind A Town Called Panic. Most of the film is shot in wide compositions and the viewer get a clear sense of the depth and scope the filmmakers achieve in the many different locales, most notably through the blue hues of the underwater segments. The occasional close-up reveals the stunning intricacies of the figurines and model sets, including the finely etched faces and telling interiors. Colors are spot on, especially Indian's vibrant yellow shirt that constantly acts as a visual homing beacon during the film's dynamic set pieces. The stereo sound compliments the jarring mixture of musical genres on display and the white subtitles nicely contrast from the image.
An extensive 52-minute documentary entitled "La Fabrique de Panique" charts the fascinating filmmaking careers of co-directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, who met at the Belgium film school La Cambre in the early '90s. The film goes into great detail about the directors' working relationship, including their work on early short films, the television version of A Town Called Panic, then ending with an in-depth look at the making of the animated feature film. Other fleeting extras include the similarly themed short film Obsessive Compulsive, short video interviews with the directors covering a number of different subjects, a deleted scenes reel, test shot comparisons, a photo gallery, and the U.S. theatrical release trailer.
A Town Called Panic finds unexpected beauty and friendship in the chaos of contradiction, and Zeitgeist has created a lovingly rendered DVD transfer for home-viewing audiences to enjoy.