This whimsical, thoroughly Belgian import imagines a primary-colored world in which the tiny toy cowboy, Indian and horse figures we all had as children (well, those of us who grew up in a pre-Transformers world) come alive and find themselves in all manner of goofy yet compelling adventures. The subtitled French-language film has won a cult following already — not least because its creators have been steadily churning out variations on this same claymation horse/cowboy/Indian theme for almost a decade now with occasional help from Britain's great Aardman Animations.
That’s as it should be: A Town Called Panic is nothing if not original, combining the autonomous magic inherent in stop-motion with a decidedly Belgian sense of the absurd. Fans of Belgian genre cinema, a niche group if ever there were one, will note and applaud the vocal participation of Benot Poelvoorde, who was last seen stateside as the attention-starved psychopath in 1992's disturbing and brilliant Man Bites Dog.
Regular audience members who inadvertently stumble into a screening of the film, however, are going to have one of two reactions. The first will almost certainly be in bewilderment: The childlike Cowboy (Aubier) and Indian (Ellison) share a house with the more mature Horse (Patar), and they all live happily in a clay-made toy-figure village.
The second will depend on the viewer’s animation patience. Even at a trim 75 minutes, A Town Called Panic feels overlong and colorfully overwhelming. It's one thing to watch Aubier and Patar's 10-minute episodes in a festival situation or while surfing the Web and quite another to spend more than an hour with these zany, nattering yokels. Grade: B-
Opens May 7. Check out theaters and show times, see more photos from the film and get theater details here.