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A scene from A Town Called Panic.


3 out of 4 stars


A Town Called Panic

  • Directed by St├ęphane Aubier and Vincent Patar
  • (In French, with English subtitles)
  • Classification: NA

If you think entertaining stop-motion animation requires 3D glasses ( Coraline) or the celebrity voices of George Clooney and Meryl Streep ( Fantastic Mr. Fox), take a deep breath - preferably of helium - and surrender yourself to the surreal, action-packed hilarity of A Town Called Panic ( Panique au village).

Based on the cult TV hit by Belgian duo St├ęphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, Panic takes us into a bizarro world "village" where the inhabitants resemble cheap plastic generic toy figurines, sets have a delightful homemade look and the pace is non-stop scurry.

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While the overall vibe has the improvised feel of a playroom saga executed by two hyped-up, imaginative kids, A Town Called Panic actually represents months of painstaking detail work. Dozens of "clones" with various moving parts were used for each of the main plastic characters.

All the silliness unfolds in a complex social structure, where good manners are expected, bad behaviour is punished and birthdays are not to be forgotten.

The initial mood is frantic bucolic. Horse, the film's studly hero, lives with his roommates, the inseparable and somewhat feeble-minded tricksters Cowboy and Indian, across the road from farmer Steven, his wife Jeanine and assorted plastic cows, pigs and chickens. The first wave of panic hits when Cowboy and Indian realize they have forgotten Horse's birthday. They quickly hatch a plan to get him off the computer and out of the house so they can order 50 bricks online and build him a barbeque as a gift.

When 50 million bricks arrive, the duo scrambles to hide the extras by stacking them neatly on top of the house. That evening, Horse's party goes without a hitch - even Madame Longray (also a horse), the fetching village music teacher, shows up. But the bricks eventually crush the house, laying waste to the surroundings. Horse and his friends rebuild the house twice before realizing that strange pointy-headed dudes from a parallel undersea world are stealing their walls at night.

The trio follows the thieves down into a cave, every twist in their journey to rescue their walls landing them in weird places - such as the belly of a huge experimental penguin weapon that scoops up enormous snowballs and hurls them at unsuspecting woodland creatures.

The filmmakers have fun with the sense of scale, often introducing life-size items (waffles, a tube of rubber cement to attach the bricks) as a sight gag.

A Town Called Panic played the Cannes Festival last year - the first stop-motion animated film ever officially invited - and was also a hit with adults at last year's Midnight Madness program at the Toronto International Film Festival. But moms and dads should know there is no overt cruelty or kinkiness here. Primary-school kids who understand French or can comfortably read subtitles will have a blast.

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A Town Called Panic opens today in Toronto, in Edmonton Feb. 26, Vancouver Apr. 1 and Regina Apr. 8, with more cities to be confirmed.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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