Movie Review: A Town Called Panic (My Choice For Best Animated Film Of 2009)

Here's to a school of dagger-propelled, orange barracuda siccing any listmeister who jumped the gun and failed to consider A Town Called Panic for his or her top ten films of 2009. Undeniably the most entertaining and energetic movie of that now-caput year, I found myself funstruck from film's start to its fireworks-laden finish; ATCP is also 2009's best animated film, somehow scurrying and climbing past other visionary, grand entries from the oh-nine like Wes Anderson's fireside-classic Fantastic Mr. Fox, Pixar's latest crown jewel Up, and Disney's strong, under-appreciated The Princess and the Frog. This superlative—and I realize how questionable it may seem to those unimpressed by the accompanying image—is not fueled by contrarianism or ostentatious indie preferences; this Fantastic Fest Audience Award winner is simply that effing good. Seek it out.

In attempting to explain what makes Panic so tops, I'll first need to brush through its plot and set-up. The main characters are fittingly named HorseIndian (or "Indien"), and Cowboy, a trio of unlikely roommates in the shape of anthropomorphous, waxy toys. Specifically, Horse, Indian, and Cowboy are the type of dime-a-dozen plastic playthings that several generations of tyke have scattered across den floors; toys bought in assorted bags of farm animals and masculine bi-pedal warriors and promptly dumped out to wobble into battle (often using leg-melded platforms that I have to imagine always looked antiquated and cheapskate).

More or less even more deliriously aimless, Horse, Indian, and Cowboy inhabit perpetual states of madcap leisure within a two-story home. A valley separates their house from a nearly-identical one belonging to a loud farmer and his patient wife that sits atop a quaint farm. The farm is populated by cows, a well-read donkey, and pigs that interact with their owners more like vocal, distant relatives than cud-chewing property. (The animals seem stubbornly aware of this.) These two homes, the farm, and valley—ostensibly the "Town"—serve as the pastoral centerpiece for the trio's hyper-paced adventures, which span out every which away, across tundra, ocean, to the Earth's core, etc.

We are introduced briskly to all of the primary characters on Horse's birthday. Indian and Cowboy are conspiring to build a barbecue grill as a last minute gift for their more refined pal but characteristically err by placing an online order for 50 million bricks instead of 50. After the bricks arrive in a dizzying and humorous stream of delivery trucks, the duo commence building the grill—because every horse needs one—and naturally stash the sizable remainder on the roof. Hours and hours into his beer-flowing house party, Horse still fails to notice the hazard until the bricks collapse and destroy their crib. The trio awake from slumber in charmingly crafted bucolic twilight to survey the damage. Bummed but not discouraged they soon begin rebuilding from the endless sea of bricks, only to have their makeshift walls mysteriously stolen. The thieves? Underwater creatures that can best be described as Gremlin-like terrors outfitted in Conehead-shaped scuba suits.

In the hunt for these alien perpetrators—buzzing on proactive giddiness and titular panic—the trio set out to reclaim their fucking walls once and for all. And it's testament to the movie's brilliance that this hunt plays out fifty times faster and stranger than it reads. Moreover, there is charming irony to be had; as we watch the characters' hunt for walls, the movie is proving that the best animation is never confined by them. Limitless imagination is really where Panic surpasses each of the excellent, aforementioned animated films of the past year, which, style aside, focused on more traditional characters, worlds, and story-arcs.

Unlike Up and even the more tonally and stylistically similar, animal-based Fantastic Mr. Fox, Panic doesn't attempt to have us search for ourselves and human relationships in its plot and characters. Though that's an admirable goal for any animated film, especially one for kids, Panic wants viewers to vicariously tap into its absurd wavelength. Its characters don't have energy, they are endless energy, and any conflict or downer is vacuumed into their party raid.

I must disclose that modern stop-motion claymation, no matter how busy, usually makes me sleepy, and this reaction is usually complimented by guilt: the act of yawning at untold, creative hours of tedious labor seems bitchy and likely contributes to an important, dying art-form continuing to die. But even after hearing and reading all of the buzz for Panic, I wasn't ready for its can't-stop-won't-stop ethos and the filmmakers' insatiable inventiveness.

Imagine the tireless pitterpatter of a geuinely amusing, French-speaking Terrance and Phillip from South Park, thrown into a stop-motion world recalling the trippy British nuttiness of The Mighty Boosh, with the speed of a side-scroller video game like Sonic the Hedgehog or 'Splosion Man. That's the achievement and force of Panic as art and entertainment.

The Belgian filmmaker duo responsible are Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier. It's worth noting that their film's throwback vision for toys was first realized in a student film made four years before the release of Toy Story in 1995. (Which was also the year that saw the release of Frank Oz's adaptation of the perennial classic toy-centric kid's book The Indian in the Cupboard.) Over the last decade and using the moniker Pic Pic André, Patar and Aubier earned much acclaim overseas for previous shorts featuring Horse, Indian, and Cowboy. Like with South Park, their choice of a rough, handmade aesthetic is totally outside the box and at first would seem to hinder the emotiveness of characters and mass appeal. Horse, Indian, and Cowboy—though their mouths never move—are so appealing and universal, however, that I would watch them without subtitles.

In the film, green hillsides are flattened and raised like a cake knife to fresh icing; a wonderful, glacial skin sits atop a wintery ocean made of a paint-like substance; inside of a giant mechanical penguin—approximately the size of a water-tower—a vat of snow is used by mad scientists to launch weaponry snowballs, and appears to consist of sugar. Characters helplessly swim in this confectionary vat, but I was so caught up in the action that I didn't notice many of these said ingredients until a second viewing. At one point, fires ignite and a character opens on them with an extinguisher, thereby flooding an entire room with cotton (the imagery and execution are just as charming as when cotton is used for smoke in Fantastic Mr. Fox). Patar and Aubier make fun use of proportion unlike any animated film this past year. A giant bottle of lady perfume sits in a bathroom unremarked upon by the apparently vain toy trio. Telephones are inexplicable huge, cell phones are regular sized (and get crystal reception underground). At breakfast time, the farmer-neighbor promptly flips upside down to devour giant slices of toast made by his wife before bursting through an equally large cup of coffee on his way to work.

Characters sleep—out of cute habit—and awaken in seconds. When we see Horse doze off, we are privy to an ice-skating dream that features his love interest, an equestrian piano-teacher named Mrs. Longray. The dream seems like a classy ode to Last Year at Marienbad but it's jarringly disrupted by the farm's punctual, crude realities. At times the upright intimacy between Horse and Mrs. Longrey gets a laugh due to the subtle but suggestive absence of a giant horse c**k. This bizarre balance of artistry and several layers of humor is consistent throughout.

Sunsets appear inspired by Vincent van Gogh and the film's memorable soundtrack finds place for classical appreciation, hungover rock and electro nights, and folk-noodling, as on the soundtrack's theme, "La ballade du Facteur" by Dionysos (listen here). I guess some naysayers might attempt to negatively label the entire movie "ADD in concert," or call it slight because it's doesn't attempt to enlighten on the subject of the human condition. But this movie is the too-smart friend that yanks the human condition out of doors and into pubs and down flights of stairs for three nights straight until it quits its job and the Internet and runs off the grid with art-school girls laughing madly.

Capping off a great year for animation, which saw a welcome comeback and wake-up call for traditional handdrawn and stop-motion styles, Panic feels both apart of this mini-movement and unique. The film's message and lesson is "carpe diem" dropped into a cineaste crackpipe. The film itself, a classic for all ages.

A Town Called Panic is being released domestically by Zeitgeist Films, and is now playing at the IFC Center in New York until January 14th. It's set for release in Los Angeles in late January and will expand to other cities thereafter. For more info, here.

Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila/gmail and on Twitter.