Welcome to ‘A Town Called Panic’

GKIDS Films distributes some of the most original and breathtakingly beautiful animated films from around the world. I’ve been taking a look at their entire catalog (in a somewhat chronological way here) and how the films hold up for a young American audience. One of the more recent additions to the GKIDS library is the relatively unusual A Town Called Panic: The Collection (Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier, directors). Why unusual? Read on.

What’s it about?

Cowboy and Indian are always up to some harebrained scheme, with Horse left to clean up the mess. In Christmas Panic, their out-of-control antics lead Horse to call Santa and cancel the presents. But the boys figure they can still save Christmas . . . if they break into their neighbor’s house to steal his yule log! In Back to School Panic, a class quiz promises a fantastic prize, but only Pig knows the answer. Cowboy and Indian use a special shrinking potion to sneak into Pig’s brain, where they discover a bacon-packed world that is more than they bargained for.

In a nutshell, yeah, that’s what it’s about. The series of shorts follows the exploits of Cowboy and Indian, and each episode finds them in a different situation. This collection features all 20 episodes of the series (of 5-minute shorts), plus the two longer (half-hour) specials described above.

The animation style is meant to evoke those vintage-style “Cowboy and Indian” plastic toys. The characters show limited movement and instead look like they’re actually being played with . . . or like the film was made by a child. And the environment they interact with feels a LOT like it’s made with Pla-doh. It’s definitely a unique look, and if you watch closely, you’ll see that the animation is deceptively simple. The characters actually show quite a bit of movement and expression within a limited range.

A Town Called Panic first premiered in 2009 at the Cannes Film Festival, and it was actually the first stop-motion film to be screened there. Four years later, directors Patar and Aubier would collaborate again on Ernest and Celestine, another GKIDS film that was also nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 86th Academy Awards.

What are the cultures at play? And how about the languages?

This is a Belgian production, so the original language and voices are all in French. The Blu-ray and DVD come with an English dub, which sounds a lot like the French in terms of tone. The two language tracks mirror each other pretty well. I feel compelled to point out that there’s not an abundance of dialogue in these shorts, and the words that are spoken are often done . . . playfully. Voices are silly caricatures, and the dialogue is rushed. Remember how I said the animation style made it seem as if A Town Called Panic were made by your kid? The voices also sound like your kid made them.

Because the main characters are a cowboy and a Native American, the films certainly evoke an Old West feel, but a lot of the details betray the European production. It feels like you’re watching a bizarre concoction of what life in Wyoming might be like, according to a Belgian child who’d never been there before.

Will my kids like it?

Probably. The stories are over the top, and in this era of Cartoon Network excess, quick cuts, and crude gags, A Town Called Panic fits right in. It wasn’t a home run with my kids after the first few episodes, but they weren’t overly vocal with their complaints, either.

The unique animation style will probably have a lot of appeal for kids, and it might even inspire some young viewers to go make their own movies. I could totally see kids watching this, commenting on how it just looks like someone filmed a bunch of toys, and then going to try it for themselves. And that’s certainly not a bad thing.

Will I like it?

This is tough. My comments above might sound like criticism, but it’s all exactly as the filmmakers intended it to be. These don’t feel like low-budget claymation films. They feel like funny, crude shorts that intentionally experiment with format and animation style. And I have to respect the filmmakers for taking the risk. The fact that A Town Called Panic has found its audience and become a cult favorite is very telling.

Is there anything objectionable for young kids?

Aside from the stereotypical (and potentially offensive) portrayal of a cowboy and Native American interacting with a bunch of talking animals? There’s a lot of slapstick humor and crude gags but no overt violence or foul language. Let me put it this way: do you have any objections to Looney Tunes? If not, then you’ll probably be ok with this.

How can I see it?

The collection is available on Blu-ray and DVD and can be ordered from the usual places, including Amazon. There aren’t any “special features” on the Blu-ray, but it does include Christmas Panic, Back to School Panic, and all 20 episodes of the series along with a new short film called The Sound of the Grey.

Final word?

This one’s an acquired taste. Unlike so many of the other GKIDS releases, A Town Called Panic targets a much younger audience and might not be to everyone’s liking. It’s frenetic, immature, and politically incorrect – but that’s kind of the point. The series has developed a cult following (no big surprise there), but whether it’ll be a hit with your family is – more than any other GKIDS film – wholly dependent on you. Give it a chance.

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