A toy horse, a cowboy and an Indian wake up to find their walls have been stolen by a thieving subaquatic mutant. Cue a masonry rescue mission that takes them through the centre of the Earth, Atlantis and, er, back again
This fabulous Belgian crap Toy Story will feel weirdly familiar. Animators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar may not be household names, but their stuff has been seen in every household. Recall the Cravendale milk ads? With the pirate, the cow, the time-travelling fridge? That’s them, this is their debut, and while the ads are a primer for their herky-jerky style, you won’t have seen anything quite like it.
Aubier and Patar are from a generation weaned on stop-motion kids’ shows, and their work — the way it looks and moves — is blaringly retro. Their worlds are populated with the kind of cheap, plastic shrapnel you’d find down the back of a 1970s sofa. The plonky animation is bumpy and angular. It’s deceptively twee, but there are mad hands at work.
Based on a series of shorts that debuted in 2000, A Town Called Panic follows the misadventures of a sensible horse (Horse), a stupidhead cowboy (Cowboy) and a stupidhead indian (Indian). Reciting the plot would land you in a straightjacket. Suffice to say, it kicks off with Cowboy ordering 50 million bricks off the internet, then scribbles off in pursuit of PenguinZillas, donkeys on drums, swordfish missiles but, most of all, laughs. Buzzed on the same stream-of-consciousness free-range madness as Terry Gilliam’s Python cartoons, it’s a very noisy quest for nothing. Pixar, of course, enrich each film with a grown-up sophistication, but it’s still a proper kick to see something so wilfully uncomplicated, not just in its animation (which is terrific) but in its spirit — this yanks things right back to the golden age of simple chaos, your Tex Averys, your Chuck Joneses.
So no character arcs, no rendered fur. The most conventional this gets is in a rather fetching interhorse romance, but even that’s expressed through the medium of figure-skating. You can throw all the movie criticism you want at it but, really, all it wants to be is stupid. There is, however, something special going on here. Working in stop-motion, the most time-consuming technique in cinema, Patar and Aubier have somehow crafted a cartoon that feels off-the-cuff and improvised. Rehearsed anarchy? That takes either psychosis or talent, probably a bit of both, but A Town Called Panic remains a dazzling example of auteur animation where the only restrictions are set by the imagination.
By the way, that running time might seem brief, but believe us, it’s just enough. One more minute of its eye-fidgeting, hyperstrobing style and your brain would start popping like Space Dust.
One of the years originals frantic, unpredictable and very, very funny. Remove brain. See loud.