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Fantastic Fest Review: A Town Called Panic

By  · Published on September 25th, 2009

When you were younger, I have no doubt that at some point you got a big bag of random plastic toys that made little sense considering that whales and tigers had only a minor role in conquering the Old West. Despite the nonsensical pairings, you probably reveled in playing with them and creating stories for everything – why the Tiger was mortal enemies with the Army Battalion Sergeant, why the Apache Warrior on horseback was a spy, why Farmer’s Wife was falling in love with Astronaut.

Those moments from the shared experience of our collective childhoods have now been captured in the kind of frantic, sugar-induced madness that your inner child should throw a tantrum about until he or she gets. A Town Called Panic is the result of a few childish minds using stop motion animation to take those figures of our youth and give them the absurd life they deserve. Or, as fellow Reject Brian Salisbury describes it, the film is as if A.D.D. children were given cameras to videotape the adventures they create while playing with plastic toys.

Indian and Cowboy are in trouble – they’ve forgotten to get a gift for their roommate Horse on his birthday, but when they order bricks online to build a barbecue, they accidentally end up with 50 million of them delivered to their house. Meanwhile, Horse is trying to win the favor of the beautiful music teacher Ms. Longree, and Farmer Steven just wants to eat his toast and fix his tractor.

If that sounds like a plot, don’t worry. There’s no pesky plot to muddle up things here. The story flows from one situation to the next without wrapping anything up or even acknowledging the past as it sails by. First it’s the bricks. Then they use the bricks to build a house, but the walls get stolen by thieves. Then, they’re trapped in a giant penguin that scientists have rigged to throw snowballs. And, yes, it is as fun as it sounds. In fact, the movie would be ruined if it had any sort of real plot. We’re dealing with animated toys here. As soon as you start to humanize them (that horse is talking and driving a car like people!) they do things that remind you that they are, in fact, stuck to a plastic base (that guy is eating a piece of toast bigger than his car and smashing through a full-to-the-brim giant coffee cup!)

The beauty of the film by Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar is that it never ceases to create a sense of wonder. The look of it is incredible – a sort of Play-Doh-infused fever dream that moves at a quick plastic-based waddle through an environment built with simple household items parading as things they are not. The lack of rules in the world is bolstered by the mix of correct and incorrect sizes of everything. It’s subtle, but it works incredibly well to create a fantasy land where sometimes coffee mugs are body-proportionate to their users and sometimes a hair dryer is 5 times larger than the Indian figurine drying his headdress. It’s a touch of familiarity that’s used in both old and new ways, and it works as yet another anchor to childhood – a time when something as simple as a flashlight was magical and mysterious. Not knowing what things are used for or how big they should be comes in handy when creating an adventure.

Another element of that world is the lack of real consequences. If an entire house falls down, it’s okay. Just get the broom, clean up, and remember that everything is made out of toys.

And yet something tells me that Hollywood won’t take a much-needed cue when it makes its toy-based adaptations. This is how to do it right, make it memorable and give it some heart.

Despite the concept sounding gimmicky (and the major strength of the film being its look), it never wears out its welcome. The film could have continued from one wacky adventure to the next for several more hours and it would have been just as likable. The dialogue is funny (and usually yelled in French) and light to match the completely lack of plot, and each character has its own unique appeal whether it’s the sweet Ms. Longree or the sneaky underwater-dwelling thieves.

Over all, the movie is pure spectacle that has the power to transport you to the younger, joyful mindset of the sandbox. The technique of using stop motion and generic toys seems like such a no-brainer, but it’s transcendent in its ability to deliver an overwhelming sense of wonder. It’s childish, crazy and plotless, but those are all great things that create something endlessly surprising and intensely fun.

The Upside: Lovable characters in a hyper-creative environment that have the ability to revert you back to your childhood.

The Downside: You may injure yourself laughing.

On the Side: This feature length was developed after several shorts that hit the internet and can be seen here. Also, you can pronounce the grade as “Ah.”

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.