An antic little joy ride through the imagination of Belgian outfit Pic Pic Andre, stop-motion animation “A Town Called Panic” proves you don’t need fancy CGI techniques, 3-D, or stunt voice casting to make a sparkly little gem. Co-helmers Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s first feature, a spin-off of their same-named TV series, goes off a surreal adventure with Plasticine pals Cowboy, Indian and Horse involving piano lessons, tractors, and mechanical penguins. Distinctly offbeat and European in its sensibility, “Town” will struggle to attract residents expecting mainstream fare, but will appeal to sophisticated kids and inner-child-nurturing adults as a niche release.
Belgian and French auds will be most familiar with pic’s characters and world via series of five-minute films originally broadcast on Canal Plus, although show has been dubbed into Brit-accented English by “Wallace and Gromit” producer Aardman and shown offshore on cable stations (such as Nicktoons in the U.S.) and further disseminated through the Internet.
Offering a distinctive blend of whimsy, slapstick violence and manic energy, the “Town Called Panic” universe pivots round a deliberately random-looking collection of small figurines — cowboys and Indians rub shoulders with farmers and policemen — that look like the kind of cheap toys kids buy with their allowance. (The plastic and resin-based figurines look mass-manufactured but are actually made for the show and pic itself.)
Animated with deliberate jerkiness, their antics resemble the imaginary games slightly twisted 8-year-olds play when adults aren’t looking. Tone is more innocent than “South Park” or “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” but definitely darker than “Pingu,” although all are touchstones, among others.
Plot in current feature revolves around main characters Cowboy (voiced by co-helmer Stephane Aubier) and Indian (Bruce Ellison) attempting to build a barbeque as a birthday present for their friend Horse (co-helmer Vincent Patar). A keyboard accident while Internet shopping results in the delivery of 50 million bricks instead of 50, which end up crushing the threesome’s house and creates a minor inconvenience for the gang’s shouty neighbor Steven (Benoit Poelvoorde, “Man Bites Dog”).
Meanwhile, Horse is pitching woo to comely local piano teacher Madame Longree (Jeanne Balibar, “Va Savoir”). Unfortunately, his efforts are frustrated when he’s forced to pursue, along with Cowboy and Indian, some bizarre sea creatures who keep stealing Horse’s newly built walls. Don’t even ask how a mechanical penguin gets in on the act.
First half-hour or so is chockfull of good gags spiced with slightly more adult humor, particularly sequence showing Horse’s birthday party where everyone gets a little too drunk and merry. Halfway through though, energy starts to flag somewhat, and filmmakers’ lack of experience in writing feature-length scripts shows.
Nevertheless, pic remains appealing to the end and was particularly warmly received at press screening in Cannes, perhaps for repping such light relief after over a week’s worth of heavier, gorier fare. Punky soundtrack by Dionysos and French Cowboy adds punch.