Even by the anything-goes standard of the animated film, in which a movie’s reality can be and often is continually recreated through a series of abrupt scene changes and non-sequitur gags impossible to the live-action work, A Town Called Panic is notably supple, its world one of supreme malleability. Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s gut-buster uses a heroic load of handcrafted plastic figurines and a painstaking stop-motion filming process to fill its densely packed 75 minutes with enough gags and absurdo-comic set pieces for a Marx brothers marathon. Actually, in its mile-a-minute pacing and its continual sense of inventiveness, Panic calls to mind certain classic Warner Bros. cartoons, while in its manic artisanal quality which focuses on the manipulation of stock toy-like figures (a horse, a cowboy, a stereotypical Indian chief with his arm raised in a perpetual salute), it unfolds like the fevered playtime imaginings of an over-bright and dangerously unbalanced child.
The film follows its central trio as a birthday gift gone wrong leads them on a surreal escapade. After an online ordering snafu, which results in the delivery of 50 million bricks instead of the desired 50 and the corresponding destruction of their house, the three figures embark on an adventure which takes them through a dangerous underwater realm and finds them taken prisoner on a mechanical penguin created solely, it seems, to shoot snowballs. But even when Aubier and Patar aren’t staging the grand set piece, they stuff every second of the film with little bits of comic business, so that a coffee pot features three spouts, a vending machine shoots out giant waffles, and the horse enjoys a chocolate hay bale for his birthday. Although the characters’ existence is essentially defined by chaos and the continual potential for annihilation, the film suggests at the same time a world capable of easy regeneration, in which a car separated from its engine can be fixed in a matter of seconds and a whole town can be razed and then rebuilt completely from scratch. Befitting the easy manipulability of the film’s materials, Panic posits an endlessly malleable universe whose objects can be remade nearly as fast as they’re destroyed. Such are the joys of the fantasy world that animation makes possible.