Not only is A Town Called Panic (Panique au village) the weirdest movie I've seen at Fantastic Fest this year, it is threatening to knock the top contenders off my All-Time Strangest Movies Ever, including Forbidden Zone. I spent half the movie with my jaw dropped and my mouth open, just staring in disbelief. Fortunately, I spent the other half of the movie laughing -- this Belgian animated film is as entertaining as it is bizarre.
The movie is animated, and I can't quite tell how it was shot. It looks like stop-motion animation. In fact, it looks like someone opened a child's toybox, pulled out a bunch of toys at random, and cast them as characters in this film without much concern about which toy would play which part. Thus we have horse, cowboy and Indian toys living together in one house as though they were characters from an American sitcom. However, the characters sometimes move in ways that look more like claymation than the animation of hard plastic toys.
The plot is equally difficult to describe; fortunately, it's not all that important. Did you see The Triplets of Belleville for the storyline? Exactly. It's Horse's birthday, and his housemates Cowboy and Indian decide to build him a barbecue pit. However, they end up ordering too many bricks, and ultimately have to rebuild Horse's house, which some undersea water creatures keep trying to steal ... you see what I mean? And I haven't even mentioned Horse's love interest, Madame Longree, a horse who teaches piano lessons, or the killer robot penguin, or Horse's neighbor Steven and his love for his tractor.
A Town Called Panic is a festival of surreality, starting from the moment that Horse jumps in the tub for a quick bath and heads downstairs to read the newspaper. Every minute or two, something new onscreen causes you to blink or double-take or giggle, possibly all at once: the full-sized toothbrush in the bathroom, the neighbor who devours a human-sized slice of Nutella toast, the sheep getting ready for bed -- oh, those sheep were both adorable and funny.
The feature film is based on some animated shorts that I'm told are a cult sensation in Belgium -- you can find them on YouTube, although they're dubbed, which loses some of the effect. The original voices are perfect for the characters, especially Cowboy's high-pitched squeak, that I can't imagine them dubbed. It's often difficult to extend shorts into a coherent and interesting feature film, and filmmakers Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar have managed this by not worrying about developing a traditional narrative structure, but by focusing on the quirkiness of the universe they've created.
Unfortunately, a surreal Belgian animated film is not the sort of movie that will show up at your local megacineplex anytime soon, although I'm told it will return to Alamo Drafthouse for a brief run in January. If you have an opportunity to see A Town Called Panic, grab it. It's not often that I get the chance to see something that's weird and unlike anything you might see in a thaeter ... but still manages to be delightful.