Thursday, March 25, 2010

Film review: Cult oddness of 'Panic' only partly successful

A scene from A Town Called Panic.

By John Thomason

You can pay half-attention to A Town Called Panic and still be able to follow the story. You can just as easily pay complete attention and have no idea what's going on. Bottom line: Just leave logic at the door and try and enjoy yourself.

Opening Friday at the Lake Worth Playhouse, the film is based on a long-running Belgian stop-animation cartoon of the same name, most of whose episodes ran about 5 minutes in length. The show detailed the zany antics of Cowboy, Indian and Horse (creative names indeed), three toy figurines who shared a house in which doors opened upward and the furniture was inflatable. It was more weird than funny, but it had its dedicated followers.

Compared to the bite-sized sketches of the series, the movie feels epic and overstuffed, even though it clocks in at just over 70 minutes. The plot is a succession of absurdist adventures beginning with Cowboy and Indian's realization that they had forgotten Horse's birthday. As a last-minute gift idea, they decide to build a homemade barbecue, only to accidentally order 50 million bricks from a Website.

Somehow, this leads to the destruction of the town as they know it, sending the peculiar family on a perilous trek across frozen tundra and an underwater civilization to retrieve their possessions from pointy-headed cretins. All the while, Horse just wishes he was back home taking music lessons from the sexy filly who's teaching them.

The animation style is deliberately crude and imperfect, making South Park look like Pixar. "My kid could animate that!" could be a justifiable gripe. Of course, for Panic fans, like the contingency of audiophiles who prefer the warm crackle of vinyl over the sterile clarity of digital recordings, the self-conscious stop-motion formalism is part of the show's lo-fi charm and humor.

Except that, if A Town Called Panic is more like a record than a CD, it's one that feels like it's being played on the wrong speed. Everything in the movie's hyperreality proceeds at a blistering pace, so that keeping up with the subtitles while following the dizzying action onscreen becomes a formidable challenge. There's nary a moment that isn't chock-full of activity. It's ADD in cinema form, a caffeinated jolt to the senses.

All of the film's (and by extension, the series') distinguishing features -- its nonstop pacing, its esoteric humor, its barely animated animation -- are at once its most appealing characteristics and its most alienating drawbacks. It's different, to be sure, but does it work?

This double-edged sword of cult quirk is destined to be loved by few and puzzled over by many.

A TOWN CALLED PANIC. Directors: Stephane Aubrier and Vincent Patar; Distributor: Zeitgeist; with the voices of Aubrier, Patar, Bruce Ellison and Benoit Poelvoorde; Opens: Friday; Venues: Lake Worth Playhouse, Lake Worth; Cinema Paradiso, Fort Lauderdale.

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