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A Town Called Panic DVD Review

A Town Called Panic (Panique au Village) movie poster A Town Called Panic (Panique au Village)

US Theatrical Release: December 16, 2009 / Running Time: 77 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Directors: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar / Writers: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar (story & screenplay); Guillaume Malandrin, Vincent Tavier (story)

Voice Cast: Stéphane Aubier (Cowboy, Max Briquenet, Mr. Ernotte), Jeanne Balibar (Mrs. Jacqueline Longray), Nicolas Buysse (Sheep, Jean-Paul), Véronique Dumont (Janine), Bruce Ellison (Indian), Frederic Jannin (Policeman, Gerard, Brick Delivery Man), Bouli Lanners (Postman, Simon, Cow), Vincent Patar (Horse, Atlante Mother), Benoît Poelvoorde (Steven), David Ricci (Donkey, Michel), Ben Tesseur (Scientist 1), Alexandre von Sivers (Scientist 2)

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I don't think the world has ever seen quite the volume of prominent stop-motion animation that we received last year. Familiar from Rankin-Bass Christmas TV specials, Wallace & Gromit's Aardman Animations, and the occasional Tim Burton whim, the medium has recently thrived with several films gaining critical notice and some general public love as well. As expected, the acclaimed Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox took two of the five nominations in the Academy Awards' increasingly appreciated but rarely surprising Best Animated Feature category this year.
Three additional stop-motion films from other parts of the world were considered real contenders for the remaining slots (which would go to Ireland's traditionally-animated The Secret of Kells, Disney's The Princess and the Frog, and Pixar's undisputed winner Up): Australia's Mary and Max, the Israeli/Australian co-production $9.99, and, the subject of this review, A Town Called Panic.

A Town Called Panic is a French language film (titled Panique au village natively) produced in part by the governments of Belgium and Luxembourg. Panic is written and directed by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, who performed the same duties on the Aardman-distributed Belgian TV series of the same name, which they created in the early 2000s. Though the series, which consisted of twenty 5-minute episodes, had been broadcast overseas in the United States, Canada, and Australia, it wasn't something on the mainstream radar. Nor was this feature adaptation, getting seen primarily at film festivals and slowly earning a modest $165,000 in North America from just one to ten theaters.

Childish friends Coboy (Cowboy) and Indien (Indian) are surprised to receive considerably more bricks than they thought they ordered for Horse's birthday present.

The film opens on what seems like an ordinary day for fun-loving roommates Cowboy and Indian, but it's actually June 21st, which is their housemate Horse's birthday. In need of a last-minute gift for their pal, Cowboy and Indian go online and place an order for the 50 bricks they'll need to build a barbecue. Or so they think. One of the zero keys has been pressed more times than desired, leaving Cowboy and Indian with 50 million bricks. The barbecue doesn't rank as one of Horse's best birthday presents, but his party provides entertainment as it runs into the early morning hours. Then, the over 49 million excess bricks Cowboy and Indian had stowed come tumbling down, taking their house with it.

Cowboy, Indian, and Horse work to rebuild their abode, a challenging task made more difficult when their completed walls get stolen. Though a neighbor gets swiftly arrested for the crime, the three victims know better and attempt to find the real thief. Their efforts take them around the globe to a fiery abyss, a snowy science lab, and an underwater world. Can Cowboy, Indian, and Horse retrieve their stolen walls from the pointy-headed sea creatures who apparently took them and return home intact?

The first thing you'll notice about A Town Called Panic are its unique stylings. Its characters, simple cheap figurines, are brought to life in a deliberately crude fashion that offers great distance from the clean whiz-bang with which computer animation studios aim to dazzle. CGI, like live-action film, is delivered at 24 frames per second. Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox opted for the less smooth 12 frames per second, with each frame being doubled. Most of the time, Panic looks like it's animated at no more than 8 fps. And since the movie runs with a pace far more frantic than Fox, it shows in the jerky, jumpy action captured in the "Scope" widescreen ratio by rarely mobile cameras. It is not the most pleasing aesthetic, but it's somehow befitting of such a clearly homemade avant-garde project.

The film's manic tone is a bit burdensome on the viewer and it eventually does wear thin by the end, when you've resolved that a satisfying way to tie together the disjoint episodes will not be found. Nevertheless, the journey there is a diverting one that's imaginative, witty, and most definitely different. While I'm no connoisseur of cult foreign fare that takes effort to be discovered, I am comfortable in my inability to cite something widely known in America as a comparable reference point. There are small touches that remind one of Wallace & Gromit and others of Adult Swim programming, but Panic's lunacy is distinctly its own. That is refreshing at a time when unoriginality has long factored into discourse of modern cinema. But it also limits Panic's chances of ever being appreciated on a grand scale.

Global adventure pulls Cheval (Horse) away from Madame Longree (Mrs. Longray), the music teacher mare he fancies and here fantasizes about. Cowboy, Indian, and Horse rush to avoid the unfriendly fish let loose upon them in the parallel underwater universe Atlantide.

Still, I think the majority of open-minded viewers who scout out this film should come away satisfied and with their horizons broadened.
I can't mistake the film's quirks for excellence and as a piece of coherent storytelling it does stumble. And yet, never in its 70 minutes sans credits does the movie bore or settle for lazy, hackneyed convention.

Though the cast and canvas seem decidedly inspired by the mind of a child at play, I'm not sure the film will be appreciated by one. The case of the DVD, which is available tomorrow from New York-based limited distributor Zeitgeist Films, declares, "Despite some mild bad language in French, this film is appropriate for children." That seems like kind of a bold claim, until you realize anyone holding the case to begin with probably isn't looking for a compilation of Nickelodeon's "Barnyard."

There are a few utterances of the S-word (both in English and its famous French equivalent), none of which make it into the DVD's English subtitles, and a few usages of other kid-unrepeatable terms ("bastard", "scumbag") that do. The profanity feels a little out of place, but then what here doesn't? The fact of the matter is any child watching this will have to be a fast enough reader to keep up with the hyper dialogue's translations, which probably raises the bar to almost middle elementary school level, where they'd no doubt hear far more vulgar things. More than the rare expletive, the zany stylings may make this more of a challenge to youngster enjoyment, especially those whose notion of animated cinema has been shaped by the reasonably standardized CGI marketplace.

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2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Stereo 2.0 (French)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: July 20, 2010
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Clear Keepcase


Unsurprisingly for modern stop-motion animation, picture quality is excellent on the DVD's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The unsteady action is the filmmakers' deliberate style and not a product of the fluid, detailed photographs edited together to create it. The lone soundtrack, French stereo, does an adequate job of conveying the film's varied settings without resorting to excess or gimmickry. As stated above, no dub is provided. On by default, the player-generated English subtitles can easily be deactivated from the menu or during playback.

Co-director Vincent Patar positions pine trees in "La Fabrique de Panique", a documentary that shows a cramped, messy studio that's far from those of the CGI powerhouses. The snowball-scooping giant mechanical penguin reveals another function in this brief deleted scene. An animation test of Farmer Steven's rabid toast consumption gets compared to the corresponding shot in the film.


The DVD's hearty selection of extras begins with the lengthy making-of documentary "La Fabrique de Panique" (54:52). Informative and thorough, the piece opens with background on creators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, with excerpts of their student short films and the "A Town Called Panic" TV show
(including the episode that inspired the film). They describe their humble origins born out of boredom in the Belgian cinemascape shaped by Man Bites Dog. From there, we turn to the film, learning about the challenging adaptation. Besides hearing from a load of crew members, we get to see them at work on the intimate low-budget collaboration at "Pic Pic André." Many interesting details are shared, from how flea market hunts supplied inspiration and how the group's unwillingness to change techniques led Aardman to bow out of co-producing to behind-the-scenes looks at the construction of character poses and the "monastic" filming process.

A Deleted Scenes reel (7:23) is more like a deleted shots reel. They're worth preserving for the time and effort they required, but the mild extensions are quite unmemorable.

"Test Shot Comparisons" (2:15) show us a handful of animation and effects tests, each followed by the corresponding clip from the final film.

Writers/directors Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier explain how they came to possess the eclectic mix of toys that inspired their Town Called Panic. A llama adjusts a framed wall picture of he and his owner in Isabela Dos Santos' contest-winning stop-motion short "Obsessive Compulsive." The film's U.S. theatrical trailer jestfully makes many a bold cinematic comparison.

"Video Interviews" is really just seven short clips from a single interview of writers/directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar. Their comments on methods and inspirations are good and not entirely redundant after the documentary, but why anyone thought we'd enjoy these as selectable 30-60-second snippets instead of a single featurette, I don't know. The clips add up to 4 minutes and 46 seconds, but they'll take you over 5 minutes to view without a "Play All" option.

Obsessive Compulsive (1:37) is the short film that A Town Called Panic's makers chose as the winner of Zeitgeist's promotional stop-motion animation contest. The work of 17-year-old Isabela Dos Santos, it tells of a tiny llama straightening things up for his master.

A photo gallery displays thirteen nice images of production, most of the directors working with the figurines.

Finally, we get Zeitgeist's subtitled U.S. theatrical trailer for the film (1:32), which throws out many a grandiose cinematic comparison and makes no effort to appeal to your typical American moviegoer.

Sadly, no full episodes of the show this is based on are included, but those are available to freely watch online.

The main menu rotates the green orb of the poster and cover to cycle through the film's cast of characters with clips.

The DVD's clear keepcase allows film and DVD credits to show through on the inside. We also get a pretty swell 6-page booklet that folds open to provide a chapter listing, brief character bios, film photography, and a page on the short contest and its winner. The final in-case inclusion is a postcard advertising a Quay Brothers short films DVD collection released over three years ago.

Most of the leading characters look out over the climactic chaos that has befallen Panique au Village (A Town Called Panic).


Entertaining for much of its short runtime, A Town Called Panic deserves a look, especially from those who'd like to see an animated film straying from the lucrative models of the booming CGI market. The DVD's feature presentation delights and the unusually substantial making-of documentary adds considerable insight to the film and value to the disc.

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Reviewed July 19, 2010.

Text copyright 2010 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2009 Zeitgeist Films, La Parti Productions, Melusine Productions, Les Films du Grognon,
Beast Productions, La RBTF (Télévision Belge), Gebeka Films, Canal+, and 2010 Zeitgeist Video. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.