DVD Releases: ‘A Town Called Panic’

Anyone who has seen the ongoing series of mad-cap Cravendale adverts, featuring an ensemble cast of miniature plasticine figurines ranging from farmyard animals to pirates and farmers (Cue maniacal howls of “MILK, MILK!”) should find themselves at home with the latest effort from Belgian stop-frame animators ‘Pic Pic André’ – AKA directing duo Stephané Aubier and Vincent Patar – knowingly entitled A Town Called Panic (2009).

The concept for A Town Called Panic stems neatly from the original Belgian mini series Panique au village, with each 5 minute long episode following the disastrous escapades of a house-sharing horse (Cheval), a cowboy (Coboy) and an Indian (Indien). Blind panic really is the order of the day as the trio move from one havoc-fuelled scenario to the next, encountering – amongst others – a recurrent ravenous bear, a menagerie of talking farm yard animals and last but certainly not least, their alcoholic, borderline psychotic next door neighbour Steven, accompanied by his long suffering (yet always forgiving) wife, Jeanine.

Distributed for international markets in 2000 with the help of the UK’s own much-loved Aardman Animations – the creators of national treasures Wallace and Gromit, no less – the cult TV series has been dubbed into numerous languages and reached audiences in the UK, US, Australia, Canada and even South Korea. Why is it then that the film’s very Belgian directors decided to release the feature length incarnation of Panique au village in its original language with accompanying subtitles, despite the seemingly successful dubbing of the original TV series?

It is of course true that for any traditionally animated film, foreign language or otherwise, the task of competing with the big budget, CGI creations from both Disney Pixar and DreamWorks Studios for attention of the nation’s child/teenage population is nigh on impossible. However, films such as Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away (2001) and, more recently, Ponyo (2008), have embraced the use of dubbing, often recruiting the voice talents of recognized Western stars – with past acquisitions including Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon and Liam Neeson – in order to secure both a wider release and larger audiences (just try taking a five year old to a subtitled film). Surprisingly, A Town Called Panic rejects this approach, and it remains to be seen whether the film will manage to attract a larger audience on DVD than it did on its stunted theatrical release.

Marketing malfunctions aside, A Town Called Panic’s frenetic pace and bizarre set pieces – highlights include the siege of a gigantic, snowball-hurling mechanical penguin and a breakfast scene where unhinged farmer Stephen literally demolishes a life sized slice of toast and mug of coffee – are truly refreshing and a joy to behold. The film’s narrative is suitably incomprehensible, with the plot vaguely bookended by two consecutive birthday celebrations held for the community’s much-respected Cheval (gruffly voiced by co-director Patar). Cheval’s dim-witted, yet warm hearted house-mates Indien and Coboy provide most of the film’s best comic moments, be it accidentally ordering 500,000,000 bricks instead of 50 in an online ordering mishap, or being literally beaten around the house by their irate equine companion, and the stop-motion animation perfectly complements their Laurel & Hardy-esque follies.

Despite gaining deserved recognition for its style and originality – notably becoming the first stop-motion animation to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 – its bizarre, surrealist demeanour and lack of awareness in terms of its target audience lead to a poor theatrical showing for A Town Called Panic. However, for those looking for a unique slice of Belgian humour blended with some tremendously entertaining, staccato animation (I know you’re out there), this film was probably made for you.

Daniel Green