Who would have guessed that a Belgium movie in French based on a children’s television show would be one of the most kooky, whimsical, weird and wonderful cinematic experiences in recent memory? It’s one of those delightful surprises that makes scrounging and searching through obscure sources worthwhile. The form is stop-motion animation with small pedestal action figure characters that look like they come by the bag. Think of tiny green soldiers except with different characters.

Cowboy, Indian, and Horse are the main characters. Their general relationship is Cowboy and Indian get into crazy high jinks while Horse stolidly administers damage control. It is Horse’s birthday. Cowboy and Indian scramble at the last minute to get him a present. They decide to build a barbecue made out of bricks, but they don’t have enough bricks. They order some through the internet and due to a mix-up millions are delivered. The consequences of covering them up snaps the plot forward like a tightly wound rubber band.

Horse rolls with the punches in an almost Zen sense. No matter what chaotic insanity is hurled he responds with pragmatic logic that is three or four degrees off-center, but completely appropriate to his environment. Refreshingly, he never gets mad. The house has been destroyed! Just spend the next day building a new house. Internal logic seems unique even to cartoons; gravity, weight, and geography have minds of their own; character’s actions can be bizarrely direct. Yet everything is grounded by an absolutely fantastic playful whimsy.

This whimsy might be the film’s best asset. For example, Horse kicks off his horseshoes before getting into bed. When falling down a bottomless chasm on top of a giant rock the group chooses an unusual activity. Little lambs unzip their wool coats and change into PJs before bed. Whimsical humor in this manner is a gift not to be taken for granted from directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar (who relish the widescreen frame). In a kid cinema wasteland of fart and pee-pee jokes actual wit should be treasured. Of course wit is a rare commodity in any genre.

During the last third, I had no idea what was going to happen next. Such unpredictability is pure joy to a jaded film nut. I’ve seen the movie two more times since and that glee of invention, of crossing a cinematic barrier where everything is new and fresh, remains intact. My only criticism, and this only happened during my third viewing, is that the constant shouting panic can be a little grating. Aside from that, “A Town Called Panic” possesses the kind of venturing into new territory quality that only the best movies have.

The DVD: “La Fabrique de Panique”, a 52-minutes documentary, delivers excellent insight into the team of Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar. They have an extremely natural vibe chemistry that transcends words. Their talent is tremendous. A generous sampling of early work is shown. But foremost, the colossal work of stop-motion animation is conveyed. Amazingly, Aubier and Patar animated the entire movie themselves!

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