Plastique fantastique

Offbeat animation -- and a sprightly horse -- rules A Town Called Panic

FILM The 2009 Toronto Film Festival encompassed, as usual, much

of what would turn out to be the year's major award bait: Up in the Air, Precious: Based On the Novel Push By Sapphire, A Serious Man, new ones by Herzog, Almodóvar, Haneke, etc. But probably the best, and certainly most enjoyable, movie seen there was well off the official radar of must-sees. Perhaps because it centered on the adventures of plastic toys?

Profound, it is not. But A Town Called Panic is perhaps more consistently hilarious than anything since 2006's Borat (which is now forever tainted by the association with 2009's gravely disappointing Brüno). Several viewings later, it remains a delight. Now you can share the joy in local theaters. It's that rare movie for everybody — or at least those old enough to read subtitles and not too wrong-headedly "grown-up" to snub a cartoon.

Opening in New York City and L.A. just in time to qualify for 2009 Oscar nominations, Panic is a dark horse not just because it's foreign, but because last year was an unprecedentedly good one for animation. Personal faves Sita Sings the Blues and Up might have more intellect and heart, respectively. But Panic is funnier — than any '09 live action feature, too.

It's a feature expansion of a Belgian "puppetoon" series originating in a film-school project in 1991. A decade later, fellow graduates Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar decided to turn it into a series of five-minute shorts that wound up on TV networks worldwide. You can find several dubbed English-language episodes on YouTube — but trust me, it's somehow even more hilarious in the original French, with subtitles of course.

The titular town is an idyllic patch of cartoon countryside whose primary stop-motion residents are a couple of households on adjacent hills. On one abides tantrum-prone Farmer Stephen, his wife Jeanine, and their livestock. The other houses our real protagonists, Cheval (a.k.a. Horse), Indian, and Cowboy. All look like the kinds of not-so-high-action figures kids possessed in the first half of the 20th century, before TV commercials made the toy market explode.

Ergo, Cheval is a hollow plastic mold of classic chestnut-stallion design, maybe seven-by-five inches, while his pals are possibly rubber figures a couple inches high, standing on li'l oval bases easily glued into the scenery of your homemade 1948 model-train landscape.

Of course they're animate, albeit in the most endearingly klutzy fashion imaginable — though A Town Called Panic the movie is, like 1999's South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, a significant visual upgrade from the broadcast version that nonetheless retains the air of cheerful crudity on which the concept's charm largely rests.

Anyhoo, Cheval (voiced by Patar) is the responsible-adult minder to squeaky-voiced wards Cowboy (Aubier) and Indian (Bruce Ellison), who are like rambunctious five-year-olds — impulsive, well-intentioned, forever trying to haplessly hide the disasters they've accidentally caused. Having forgotten (once again) that it's Cheval's birthday, they have a bright idea that one wee computer keyboard whoopsie turns into a catastrophe for the whole village. But not before A Town Called Panic's most hysterical set piece: a birthday fete featuring breakdancing, a disco ball, Farmer Stephen passing out, and Cheval's sexy slow dance with music-school teacher Mme. Longray (Jeanne Balibar) — his pink-maned, smoky-voiced romantic interest.

Subsequent adventures embroil our heroes in some undersea chase nonsense that feels less inspired, perhaps in part because of a sense that SpongeBob already owns the absurdist ocean floor. But at a hectic 75 minutes, Panic never lags long enough to let its energy or overall hilarity flag.

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