‘A Town Called Panic’

Film Critic

I could tell you about the parachuting cows, the giant automated penguin, the mad scientists doing serious snowball research. I could even tell you about Cowboy, Indian and Horse, three amigos who share a two-story house way out in the sticks. But to really understand the zany and surreal comic madness of “A Town Called Panic,” you’re going to have to see it for yourself.

The first stop-motion animated feature to be an official Cannes selection, “Panic” is the offshoot of a French-language Belgian TV series whose creators, Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, have quite the following all across Europe. Made with an anarchic, anything-goes spirit, this is truly a film, not to mention a town, where you never know what’s going to happen next.

It’s also a town populated by people and animals who are no more than stiff and immobile plastic toys whose facial expressions never change and who move in fits and starts across a simple, almost primitive landscape. We never find out how the three housemates got together, but their psychological relationship is clear. Horse, often glimpsed sitting on the sofa reading the newspaper, is obviously the adult of the crew, while the juvenile Cowboy and Indian share a bedroom, spar with each other, fight for the shower (Indian’s headdress displays like a peacock’s tail when it gets wet) and vie for Horse’s favor.

Next door live the farmer Steven, who loves his tractor, and his wife, Janine, who loves to party with the break dancing Policeman. Also in town is the ravishing Madame Longrée, a glamorous mare who teaches music and fixes cars (not at the same time, but don’t rule that out) and has an eye for the handsome Horse.

One of the things that unites these idiosyncratic creatures is that they tend to, yes, panic at a moment’s notice. When Cowboy and Indian realize they’ve forgotten Horse’s birthday, they decide to build him a brick barbecue, but in their haste they end up ordering not 50 bricks but 50 million. Now that is something to be upset about.

Enhancing the general air of mania is the gruff, staccato and frankly panicky way these creatures talk. Voiced by the two animators and a cross section of known actors such as Belgium’s Benoit Poelvoorde as Steven and France’s Jeanne Balibar as Madame Longrée, the town’s inhabitants never stay calm no matter what the provocation. And to hear them address each other with careful formality (“Ca va, Cowboy?” “Oui, ca va”) is a treat all by itself.

Because it is a feature-length experience, albeit one only 75 minutes in length, “Panic” can’t just linger in town.

After the walls of their house are stolen (don’t ask), Cowboy, Indian and Horse end up in an alternate universe called Atlantide where a trio of mutants is up to no good at all. And don’t even ask about those scientists. Or the automated penguin. Or those parachuting cows. It’s enough to make Horse miss his music lessons from Madame Longrée, something he is loathe to do.

Clearly, “A Town Called Panic” exists in a film universe where manic incongruity is the rule and making old-fashioned sense is the only sin. When one of the characters insists “these guys are nuts,” no one of any age who experiences this particular brand of inspired comic madness will want to argue the point.