Toy story goes bonkers in A Town Called Panic

French stop-motion flick maintains spontaneity and indifference to natural law

Compared to the animated toys of A Town Called Panic, the sentient playthings of the Toy Story movies seem as calm and civilized as a university’s tenure review committee. Buzz Lightyear, Woody, et. al, however neurotic, project reasonably mature personalities. Panic's stop-motion protagonists, however, prove as hyperactive as a band of kindergartners hopped up on candy and Nickelodeon cartoons.

Instead of using 3-D avatars for their characters, French directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar animate what appear to be actual cheap toys of molded plastic, in settings worthy of a tabletop model train. A talking horse (voiced by Patar) shares a small house with a cowboy (Aubier) and an Indian (Bruce Ellison). The latter two behave like a pair of Bart Simpsons. When Cowboy and Indian realize they’ve forgotten Horse’s birthday, they decide to build him a brick barbecue. But instead of entering 50 bricks on an online order form, they request 50 million. The inspired nonsense escalates from there, and interferes with Horse’s attempts to woo the local music teacher (also a horse with other farm animals as pupils).

Horse, Cowboy and Indian’s misadventures span from the barnyard next door to the bottom of the ocean, but always maintain the spontaneity and indifference to natural law as a child’s imagination running riot. Given stop-motion animation’s time-consuming, painstaking nature, it’s amazing that Panic sustains such berserk energy. The surreal predicaments and sight gags inspire laughs, such as the chocolate hay bale Horse gets for his birthday. Panic’s main appeal comes from the characters’ energy. The way Horse, for instance, pounds a computer keyboard with his hooves, takes a shower and then speeds off in his car. The voice performances, either falsetto or comically deep, convey a similar sense of play.

Aubier and Patar’s uninhibited animated anarchy makes them kindred spirits of “South Park’s” Trey Parker and Matt Stone. But A Town Called Panic features no gore, no raunch beyond an occasional, subtitled “Bastards!” and not even many pop references. A dream scene with dancing horses echoes the Gene Kelly/Cyd Charisse ballet number in Singin’ in the Rain. Otherwise, Panic seems to point at nothing but the crazy creativity of childhood. Despite its cast of domesticated animals and ordinary townfolk, A Town Called Panic turns out to be where some wild things are.