Saturday, 9 October 2010

Toy story: "A Town Called Panic"

If, like me, the only thing that makes you look up at the TV during the ad breaks these days are those wonderfully batty stopmotion commercials for Cravendale milk, you owe it to yourself, your children and your loved ones to see A Town Called Panic, a full-length outing for Belgian animators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, in which the cows have a crucial cameo role, and form comes to mesh perfectly with content: the story's every bit as crazy as the styling. A toy cowboy ("Cowboy"), a toy Indian ("Indian") and a toy horse (you guessed it, "Horse") live together in a tall house in a quiet village; well, I say quiet village, although it turns out the only other house in the area is owned by shouty farmer Steven ("QUE'ST-CE QUE C'EST?"), who drinks his coffee by leaping headfirst through the cup, is voiced by the sociopath from Man Bites Dog, and may now be my favourite character in any film ever.

Although prone to doing some very un-equestrian things - taking a paper with him to read in the bathroom, corresponding with a brother called Jean-Claude, driving everywhere - Horse is the brains of the first household, a fact singularly demonstrated when Cowboy and Indian attempt to order fifty bricks for a barbeque using Horse's Internet connection, and end up taking delivery of fifty million. The chain-reaction plotting that follows is manic - so manic, indeed, that I was loath to take too many notes, lest I miss some new flourish or felicity - yet Aubier and Patar give themselves the prime-era Simpsons luxury of throwing away inspired visual and narrative ideas almost in dispatches.

In a work of relentless forward momentum, propelling viewer and characters alike ever onwards, to the ends of the earth and the bottom of the deep blue sea, we glance upon a tiny vending machine stocked with outsized waffles; a piano for horses, the keyboard at hoof height; an "I LOVE MOZART" baseball cap; and a mid-film musical montage between Horse and his teacher love interest modelled on Gene Kelly's duet with Cyd Charisse in An American in Paris. That one's strictly for buffs, but otherwise it would be hard to think of a recent film possessed of more universal appeal (even Toy Story 3 played dark in places): in one stroke, you could well see it delighting youngsters raised on the surrealism of Pingu, anyone who enjoyed Belleville Rendez-vous, and connoisseurs of the deadpan comedies of Bouli Lanners, who assumes the voice of a cow here. Yet more proof of the boom going on in animation right now - and this is boomier than most, tiny explosions of pop energy, dispersing in unexpected directions - it's a riot from beginning to end.

A Town Called Panic is in selected cinemas nationwide.

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