Film #56: A Town Called Panic (2009)

film 56 a town called panic
Rating: 5/5

“Oh no! C’est ton anniversaire?! OH NO!!!”

If ever there was a film liable to make your head explode, this is it. A Town Called Panic, one of the most inventive, utterly bonkers movies of the last decade (and one of my favourites of 2009) is a brief seventy five minutes of sheer lunacy from the Belgian animation duo Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The names might seem unfamiliar but a surprisingly large amount of (UK) readers will probably have seen several of their shorts: these are also the people behind those bizarre, manic Cravendale milk adverts. If you remember them, with the footballer (?) and friends whose fridge takes them back in time to provide Cleopatra with the appropriate kind of milk for her baths, or the angry bull who gets de-spotted on a milk-flume, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from A Town Called Panic.

Aubier and Patar’s film follows the exploits of three housemates – Cowboy (played by Cowboy), Indian (played by Indian) and Horse (played by Horse). Really, the chaos ensues when Cowboy and Indian realise it’s Horse’s birthday, but they’ve neglected to buy him a present. Their master plan? Build him a barbecue, of course. So they go online and buy some bricks, but accidentally purchase 50 million of them, instead of 50. Inevitably, everything goes a little bit pear-shaped: their house collapses under the weight of the stashed bricks; someone (or something) keeps stealing their walls; their neighbour is wrongfully imprisoned; our intrepid heroes end up travelling to the centre of the Earth (and also underwater); a giant penguin robot throws huge snowballs at unsuspecting deer; and poor Horse just wants to get to his music lesson. If you think it sounds incoherent, it’s actually not. It is, of course, insanity, but the really fun, surreal kind of insanity, and just short enough to allow viewers to remain largely unscathed by the whole experience.

It’s not just the narrative that is manic: in truth, it’s Aubier and Patar’s animation style that really threatens to fry the brain. They offer audiences the antithesis to the crisp, polished stop motion animation of the likes of Aardman (Wallace and Gromit), Tim Burton (The Corpse Bride), and Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) – while Aardman’s creations occasionally reveal their hand-crafted nature through the faint indentations of a finger print, Aubier and Patar have apparently barely even bothered to make their own models. Cowboy and Indian stand on little green platforms, instantly reminiscent of cheap childhood toys (although, it should be pointed out that at one point Indian gets such a shock that he falls off his); Horse may as well be bought out of a poundshop. The same goes for the rest of the “cast” – the assortment of farm animals and some equally crudely realised people living in the village appear, at first glance, to be bought from a local toy shop for less than a tenner. One almost expects to see the “Made in China” stamp on the bellies of the pigs.

Yet, using this rudimentary style, something quite wonderful is created. The stop motion appears crass, almost, but the artistry and sheer style of the finished product is something truly unique and, in an unconventional way, often rather beautiful. The characters move in unnatural, disconcertingly jerky motions – their constant physicality making up for their unchanging appearance (their expressions, for example). Yet they are utterly expressive at all times despite this facial inertia, although the voice artists should be equally included in this success, due to their quick-fire, frequently hysterical (in both senses of the word) interpretation of the script. Meanwhile, the backdrops and settings are inspired and powerfully cinematic; simple painted skies and basic model landscapes instantly capture the deceptively amateurish aesthetic. And, despite the literal size of the characters, Aubier and Patar never scrimp on their ambitious creativity – this is a film on a vast scale, both narratively and visually. As Cowboy, Indian, and Horse travel around the world – far from the comforts of their little village – the places they travel to are impossibly grand. Just consider the extreme long shots underwater, for example, or their exit from the tiny igloo into the snowy wasteland.

To be honest, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this piece of madness. A Town Called Panic is a very tangible film; relying heavily on slapstick and physical humour, its visual appeal is difficult to really do justice, its dialogue might appear stupid or repetitive when written down. It is a little masterpiece, however, and a surreal, head-shakingly hilarious one at that. Truly, I cannot imagine how anyone who has watched this film could possibly forget it – and if you haven’t seen it, well, trust me when I say, watch it (here’s the trailer to whet your appetite): your understanding of, and appreciation for, stop motion will never be the same again.

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Film #21: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

pans labyrinth

Rating: 5/5

[Translation] “You’re getting older, and you’ll see that life isn’t like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place. And you’ll learn that, even if it hurts.”

Guillermo del Toro’s adult fairy tale is the first film picked to be given five stars, and it’s more than deserving of the credit. Winner of three Academy Awards – art direction, cinematography, and make-up – and currently sitting comfortably among the top rated films on IMDB, Pan’s Labyrinth is the Spanish writer-director’s finest film to date, a haunting, beautifully shot allegory that combines fantasy with the stark realities of war.

Set in Fascist Spain in 1944, pregnant Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her young daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrive at an isolated homestead to be with Carmen’s new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Vidal is a ruthless military man, hell bent on annihilating the resistance hiding in the gloomy forest; his heartlessness is exemplified by his brutality, revealed early on in uncompromising fashion when a hunter and his elderly father is captured and bludgeoned to death. As the pregnancy takes its toll on her mother, Ofelia retreats into a fantasy world; a stick insect spotted on her arrival becomes a fairy that leads her to an ancient labyrinth near the farmhouse, and it is here that she discovers Pan, a faun who assigns her three tasks so that she can return to her real home, a magical underworld.

There have been a number of films focusing on the “lost children” in Spain as a result of the war – The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone (also del Toro) have also been read as metaphor. Whether audiences are familiar with the historical context or not, Pan’s Labyrinth is a powerful story. While the faun’s assignments are perilous, they do provide Ofelia with some hope, which is noticeably lacking in the real world. She submits to her fantasies, welcoming the challenges on the belief that on completion she will be able to leave her gloomy, harsh reality and take her rightful place as the king’s daughter. Yet her fairytale is not the stuff of Disney dreams, but filled with danger – the Pale Man in particular is truly terrifying, a horrific creation with sagging skin and eyes in his hands. Even Pan, Ofelia’s guide, is a dubious character whose intentions are unclear; as one character says, you shouldn’t trust a faun.

In terms of both artistry and narrative, Pan’s Labyrinth is a triumph. The real world, tinged with blue, is gloomy and violent with the horrors of war realised in gory detail. The only warm tones emerge in Ofelia’s fantasies, but they too are deceptive; the yellows and golds of the Pale Man’s world look inviting, but the invitation is trickery. Del Toro’s creativity and twisted imagination is fully revealed through the creatures inhabiting the magical realm, who are largely the result of wonderful make-up and costume design, instead of CGI. When computer imagery is used, it does now look dated, but really it doesn’t matter because the director clearly understands that creating a perfect image is nothing without believable, engaging characters. As Ofelia, Baquero displays both vulnerability and steely determination; her performance is superb. Each actor brings depth to their role – Vidal is cruel and cold, but also tormented by his past and his desperation for an heir, and he is one of the most complex, and dreadful, villains of recent years.

Pan’s Labyrinth harks back to the original fairytales, before Disney invented the “happily ever after,” when they were cautionary tales filled with menace. Make no mistake, even without the graphic scenes of torture and death this would not be suitable for children. Yet the imagination and expertly realised concepts that permeate every scene, the ominous, eerie beauty within it, and its bitter-sweet, tragic story make it one of the finest films of the last ten years.