So left-field it swings all the way around the globe from Belgium, so determinedly quirky it enthralls for a full 75 minutes, the “panic” here translates almost nonstop hilarity, alternating with purely impure plastic charm.
Propelled by the misadventures of three plastic toys — Cowboy, Indian, and Horse — and designated as the first stop-motion feature chosen as an Official Selection at Cannes, A Town Called Panic conjures the cracked whimsy of The Science of Sleep’s kitchen-sink art projects fused with Gumby’s naïve delight, Mr. Bill’s high-pitched/low-tech punky perversity, and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse’s embrace of the new wave ‘n’ weird. Yet those comparisons do a disservice to A Town Called Panic’s wildly eccentric, childlike ways: in reimagining and animating those tiny otherwise-ordinary toys and giving them a lunatic universe of their own, filmmakers Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar have made a series-turned-feature film that’s genuinely original.
The panic ensues innocently enough: one morning, Cowboy and Indian realize they have no birthday gift for their housemate Horse. They find a homemade brick barbecue, only to mistakenly buy 50 million bricks online. The little birthday scheme brings down the house, literally, and sends the pals off to the center of the earth, to a frosty pole, and then below the sea, where they tangle with truly mad scientists besotted with snow and Bambi Meets Godzilla and brick-swiping, obsessively home-making gremlins.
But though most of the plastic figurines in A Town Called Panic seemed made for home and hearth, that’s somewhat besides the point: the plot is merely something to hang on Aubier and Patar’s ingenious plastic toy machinations. Half of the fun of A Town Called Panic is watching how these miniature toys do the extremely ordinary things — read the paper, take a shower, drive a car, play piano, build a house — hampered by their stiff, little, molded plastic limbs. Both their physical klutziness — no fault of their own — and innocent miscalculations, as well as their attachment to home and affection for friends and family, are exactly the kind of things an 8-year-old, and an 80-year-old, would absolutely get .