Between 2000 to 2003, Belgian animators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar produced a series of stop-motion shorts about the wacky misadventures of a community of plastic children’s toys. Not quite Toy Story or Gumby, and not quite Robot Chicken or Team America, Aubier and Patar’s A Town Called Panic has the most in common with the old Nickelodeon series Action League Now!!, in that it’s a little too rough-and-tumble for young kids, but it isn’t exactly subversive or smart-ass, either. A Town Called Panic is more like what a preteen with an overactive imagination might come up with if left alone with a farm playset for an afternoon. It’s more clever than funny, but it’s very clever.
Like the shorts, the feature-length A Town Called Panic follows the daily trials of a serious-minded Horse who lives with a none-too-bright Cowboy and Indian, in a town with Farmer, Policeman, Postman, Donkey, and the like. The movie opens with Cowboy and Indian accidentally ordering 50 million bricks to build a BBQ for Horse’s birthday, which ultimately leads to the trio taking a journey through the center of the Earth in an effort to foil a plot by arctic scientists to launch long-range snowballs via a robot penguin. All this episodic silliness is matched by the ingenious character and set design, as Aubier and Patar make some items toy-sized and some regular-sized, and take their heroes’ physical requirements into account only when necessary for a joke. (For example, the tiny figures are dwarfed by their waffles, and Horse prepares for bed by kicking off his shoes and hopping into bed standing up.)
A Town Called Panic is equal parts cute and frenetic, and may disappoint those expecting something more scabrous. It may also exhaust some viewers once they realize that there isn’t much more to the movie than one nutty incident after another. But those who stick with it may be surprised by how involving those nutty incidents become, and by the amount of thought put into every scale model and every surreal plot twist. Just know this: A Town Called Panic is the kind of movie in which you will see a horse in a Santa Claus suit, riding on a manta ray in order to dupe a race of wall-stealing fish people. Adjust expectations accordingly.