Cambridge Film Festival Review: A Town Called Panic

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The Pitch: How The West Was… Moved To A Small Belgian Village And Then Invaded By Undersea Fish Monsters Called Gérard?

The Review: With the seeming descent of hand-drawn animation into obsolescence, and CGI animated movies all but taking over, it’s left to the occasional bastion of alternative traditional techniques to keep the old-fashioned animated flag flying, with the stop-motion animation of the likes of Nick Park and Henry Selick. Painstaking in their attention to detail, the most successful animated movies these days seem to be as rich in character and story as they are in their visuals, in order to compete with their shiny counterparts. So is there room in this world for a (very) crudely animated Belgian pair’s odyssey of a cowboy, an indian and a horse?

Hopefully so, not least because this is completely bonkers. The animation style should be instantly familiar to most people in the UK, having been used by the same production company for the Cravendale milk adverts, but the original Western-themed characters and their fellow villagers have a much longer history, stretching back ten years and even including an Aardman-produced English language version. For their step up to the big screen, though, they stay resolutely French (which works for me as an Englishman, as a heavily accented “Ah non!” is always more amusing to me than a similar “Oh no!”), but of course requires a longer narrative for the characters to inhabit.

I’m not sure any attempt by me to describe that narrative would give you any idea what the movie’s actually about anyway, or indeed highlight the true beauty of Aubier and Patar’s distinctive style. There’s huge amounts of wonderful background detail going on, but much of the joy comes from the foreground style as well – A Town Called Panic has its own internal sense of logic for the most part, but it’s a very loose framework on which to add lots of visual and narrative oddness. For example, as well as Cowboy, Indian and Horse, the other inhabitants of the village include a policeman with a sentry box that can instantaneously transform into a prison, and an incessantly shouting farmer who resuscitates a poorly tractor in an operating theatre and sends his animals to school, where piano lessons consist of several pianos in the same room and where the teacher is Horse’s fellow equine love interest. Still with me?

This is occasionally anarchic, but more often than not simply surrealist and absurdist, and the sheer amount of detail and invention here should keep you going easily for the 75 minute run time. What keeps this just short of true greatness is the absence of those strong character arcs that the likes of Pixar and even Nick Park are so good at – the ending feels like a non-sequitur to everything that’s gone before, but that’s no great shakes when everything else is just so enjoyable. If you like your animated movies completely unhinged, then pay a trip to the village.

Why see it at the cinema: The big screen allows you to truly appreciate how deformed the lead characters appear most of the time, but there is definitely a cinematic sensibility to many of the scenes and it will benefit from larger viewing.

The Score: 8/10