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Under The Radar: 'A Town Called Panic'

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Jun 10, 2011 | 5:00am EDT

A Town Called PanicSometimes it is easy to predict which films will strike the right chords and become one of your favorites. They either feature actors you admire or operate within a genre you prefer, or you’ve gleaned something promising from the trailer which laid bare all the film’s secrets. But on other occasions, a film you know absolutely nothing about will completely blindside you and muscle its way onto your favorites list before you can even contemplate the exact reasons. Such was the case for me with a French film called A Town Called Panic (Panique au Village). I first saw the film at Fantastic Fest in 2009, at which it won the Audience Award, and since then I have been on a crusade to introduce as many people as possible to its splendor. As it is currently available via Netflix Watch Instantly, I hope to encourage a few of you to become acquainted with it as well.

A Town Called Panic is the story of a single father trying to raise two rambunctious children. The two boys realize they have forgotten their father’s birthday and hastily try to fashion together a gift. When their attempt at building a barbecue leaves them with an abundance of bricks, and subsequently down one house, this tight-knit family works to rebuild their homestead. But their efforts are thwarted by the previously unknown denizens of the nearby pond who steal the walls of the new house almost as soon as they are erected. If only any of them had known where chasing these lake-dwellers would lead, they may have opted to donate the walls of their decimated house. Oh, by the way, the father in this scenario is named Horse and his children are Indian and Cowboy; none of whom are at all figuratively named.

A Town Called Panic is filmed using a special stop-motion technique and what appears to be several bags of those very generic toys one would typically find at bargain surplus stores. You know, the kind of poorly molded, shoddily painted figures that would normally come in bags or buckets unceremoniously labeled, “Farm” or “Old West” or “City.” The main characters are in fact a horse, a cowboy and an Indian, which gives the film the overall effect of watching a small, wild-eyed child enjoying some frantic playtime. The plot furthers effect by proceeding along stranger and stranger storylines that are just whimsical enough to be the fruits of a very young, extremely overactive imagination.

But what I love most about A Town Called Panic is that, after a while, the characters become so likeable and so seamlessly integrated into the world the film has established that eventually they no longer drive the absurdity. With top-notch voice acting, story elements that anchor their relationships and animation that creatively navigates around the limited range of movement of the film’s plastic stars, we begin to completely accept them and therefore the absurdity is shouldered by the increasingly bizarre situations in which they find themselves. In other words, it becomes less novel to us that we’re watching a plastic horse, a cowboy, and an Indian go on an adventure and the adventure itself becomes the farce.

This may be one of the few times I have ever witnessed a film actually benefit from a language barrier. Netflix has made the very wise decision to stream this film in its original French audio with English subtitles. If you are the sort of person who considers the idea of watching a film with subtitles with the same anticipation and joy as having your wisdom teeth removed through your nose, this may be the film that reverses your consternation. The actors providing the voices of these characters have done an incredible job choosing just the right pitch, inflection and cadence to bring these tiny little toys to life. Furthermore, hearing this otherwise beautiful language spewing from frenzied action figures as the story gets loonier and loonier is a major part of the movie’s charm. There are also lines that appear on the screen that I have to believe are translation errors that only add to their comedic effect. My favorite of these being the teacher who demands of a student: “tidy up your waffle!”

Bundling all that with a smattering of incredible music and one very scrumptious breakfast scene, A Town Called Panic is indeed a lovely place to visit. Check out the trailer below, and make sure to catch this film on Netflix Instant.

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