Dread set in. I did a quick mental scan of the previous 75 minutes of pleasurable quirky stop-motion animation and witty absurdity, trying to detect furtive, or perhaps blatant, racist moments I somehow suppressed.
Nothing. “Racist?” I replied. “No, it was brilliant!”
And following exhaustive self-reflection, I support this initial reaction.
I had not intended to see the film; I was at the movies killing time while hosting undesired company. The movie poster’s tagline, written by Colin Covert for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, billed the film as “Toy Story on Acid … Monty Python meets Gumby.” This did not particularly make me want to see this movie (I cringed at the possibility of a feature length cartoon experience à la South Park, Family Guy, or anything from Adult Swim; American efforts insist on employing the crude and profane to make audiences laugh.) But alas, Village au Panique was our only option. Thankfully—mainly because of my faith in Cinemapolis and foreign cinema—I bought a ticket, and my party and I enjoyed a private viewing. (The latter condition was pleasing, yet saddening too. Support independent theaters!)
The film’s primary players are Cowboy, Indian, and Horse. During their trip to the center of the earth—one leg of a trip, also a catalyst for subsequent community-building—Cowboy complains: “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Horse is present and mildly offended. The film moves on.
Am I to read inter-species relationships as metaphors for racial intolerance? I could try, but what a waste of time. During the character’s passage to reconstruct a rural, panic-infused village, the successful effort of inclusion is evident. Tensions run high, feelings are hurt, but the wacky plot and fantastical locale make the obstacles and frustrations imbued in accomplishing this goal palatable, if not desirable.
The film, the first stop-motion animated feature selected for Cannes, is an expansion of the “Town Called Panic” shorts by animators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar that have played on French television since 2000. As in the shorts, Cowboy (Aubier), Indian (Bruce Ellison), and Horse (Patar) are housemates, with Horse leading the group as a kind of patriarch to the bumbling duo who vie for his attention. Both are unmistakably dim-witted; all are endearingly eccentric.
The film is a novelty. Characters are dime-store figurines in a stop-motion world that has a tabletop, dollhouse feel. The intentionally rough cinematography offers skewed and mismatched perspectives—a sense of manic yet focused after-school play using whatever is in the toy chest. Hysteria is the prevailing emotion; characters speak as if they are high on laughing gas. It’s energetic, silly, and funny; the jokes come fast and hard. Other reviewers have deemed this film surreal or bizarre, but truly, it’s a familiar breath of fresh air. Escapism at its best, A Town Called Panic doesn’t help us to forget; it makes us remember a time when every mountain was a molehill and fantasy was our reality. The unrestricted frame of mind is the key to traversing obstacles.
The film begins with Indian and Cowboy’s well-intentioned birthday gift for Horse. They need 50 bricks to build him the outdoor barbeque they’ve designed, but an error in their Internet order leaves them with more material than is necessary. Thus, an adventure, including a trip to the center of the Earth, the pursuit of thieving fish-men, and the commandeering of a giant robot penguin controlled by snowball-obsessed mad scientists. All of these events are, of course, also a foil to Horse’s romance with fellow horse and music teacher, Madame Longrée (Jeanne Balibar).
The town includes the home of Horse, Cowboy, and Indian, and the farm of Steven, his wife Janine, and animals that are just as human as their masters (even though they only get bit speaking parts). Madame Longrée’s music school and the homes of Policeman, Postman, and other ancillary characters exist in an undecided periphery. However, outsiders from an underwater parallel world, accessed via the farmer’s animals’ watering hole, disrupt the town—
Hold on! The dread just came back. Is this the film’s blatant insensitivity? Outsiders disrupt a small, unsuspecting village and are hunted down, vilified, and exported to their homeland? The plot is reminiscent of the U.S. immigration controversy. But this is not an American film, and we cannot go plucking such arguments out of the air merely because they are contemporaneous. As a postmodern culture, we function as obsessive meaning-making creatures that must excavate our own truths, because the ones proposed just never seem good enough.
We cannot fail to acknowledge the film’s simplicity, and in turn, life’s simple actions. Embracing the unfettered psychological states offered by animated toy statues helps us to recognize the oversights and strengths of ourselves and others. Here the tale is not one of contentious human relationship, but a misunderstanding of basic human need. However, all is not rectified and packaged in a neat resolution. What the film does well is feature a comforting, albeit amusing outcome, which demonstrates the hard work inherent in establishing a happy ending for all.
Wait. So maybe this is a fairytale. But there is a definite authenticity about the film that defies the realm of the fantastic or farce. Still, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Perhaps, when faced with the anxieties of social conformity, neither should we.