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On DVD: “A Town Called Panic”

On DVD: "A Town Called Panic"

With so many great animated films released in 2009, one of the best was lost in the shuffle, especially when it came to the Academy Awards. I have to confess that I didn’t see all of those films nominated for the Animated Feature Oscar, so I can’t rightly claim that the French-language stop-motion animation “A Town Called Panic” (aka “Panique au village”) deserved to be in there over any one of them. And of those I have seen, it’s actually very difficult to compare them to this. But with the category opened up to five titles last year, I really had hoped this little Belgian movie would easily slip in as other foreign works had when there were only three slots available. I guess it got trumped by “The Secret of Kells,” which was a co-production between Belgium, Ireland and France.

But Oscars, schmoscars. “A Town Called Panic” might have benefited from an Academy push, but it doesn’t need it. For one, here I am to highlight it. Also Netflix has labeled the film, which arrives on DVD and streaming today, “mind-bending.” And maybe it’s just the sort of people I associate with, but I think every subscriber is constantly recommended “mind-bending” films over there. Especially if they’ve watched and positively rated “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” recently. Yet despite the fact that Netflix aligns that foreign thriller with the more — though not completely — family friendly “Panic,” there are very few similarities between them.

This silly film, which won the Audience Award at last year’s Fantastic Fest, is better aligned with the work of Nick Park, of “Wallace and Gromit” fame, and the rest of that Aardman Animation crew. The studio actually distributed the “A Town Called Panic” TV series that spun-off the feature film (watch the original episodes on Atom.com). It’s also reminiscent of elements of the shows “Robot Chicken” and “South Park,” mainly their fast-paced lunacy, and of course “Gumby.” I’d also recommend “Panic” to fans of the anarchic comedy of the Marx brothers and the most wild and surreal of “Looney Tunes” shorts. And for anyone who as a kid made up insane plots with which to involve all his or her playthings, no matter what their size or toy line, there is no film that better evokes these nonsensical childhood moments. I dare say it’s a more imaginative use of toys than the “Toy Story” movies — or at least the most recent sequel — and certainly more hilarious.

Using a type of animation called puppetoon, which is different from the traditional stop-motion technique in that it involves “replacement animation,” or the substituting of different, stationary molds or versions of characters (“Panic” employed 1500 plastic toy figures) rather than using characters with movable parts, filmmakers Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar (collectively known as Pic Pic André) present an awesomely original story of house-mates Cowboy, Indian and Horse, which kicks off with the former two trying to buy Horse a perfect birthday gift, which due in part to their computer error propels the trio into a madcap adventure through other strange worlds and up against a weird, thieving race of Atlantean creatures. My description can hardly do the film justice, so check out the trailer below. And after you watch the whole film, come back and let me know what you thought.

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