A Town Called Panic (Panique au village)


A Town Called Panic

Cowboy and Indians, Cats and Dogs…it’s all the same.

(2009) Animated Feature (Zeitgeist) Starring the voices of Stephane Aubier, Jeanne Balibar, Veronique Dumont, Bruce Ellison, Christelle Mahy, Vincent Patar, Franco Piscopo, Benoit Poelvoorde, Eric Muller. Directed by Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar

 

When you were a kid (at least if you’re my age or so), you probably spent hours, as I did, in your room playing with your plastic toys, assigning to them personalities and creating entire worlds for them to explore. You would move them around, create dialogue for them and sometimes build sets for them out of other toys, cardboard, shoeboxes, whatever you can find. Some of those playtimes were far more imaginative than anything you’d see on the Saturday morning cartoons.

The Belgian creators of A Town Called Panic realized this and decided to create a Saturday morning cartoon with the same imagination and low budget that they had as kids. Using only plastic toy figures and stop motion animation, they created a television series that was actually a series of five-minute vignettes strung out into half hour television shows. Now, they’re trying their hand at a feature film and it’s alternately charming and strange.

Cowboy (Aubier), Indian (Ellison) and Horse (Patar) live together in the small town where Panic is not just the name, it’s the attitude. Their neighbors are Steven (Poelvoorde) the Farmer and his wife Janine (Dumont) who makes her husband gigantic pieces of toast for breakfast. Horse has a thing for Madame Longree (Balibar), the equine music teacher in town.

With Horse’s birthday around the corner, Cowboy and Indian decide to build him a barbecue. They order 50 bricks over the Internet but due to a computer snafu, that order of 50 bricks becomes 50 million. Cowboy and Indian try to hide their error but the bricks eventually wind up destroying their house. Fortunately, they have enough bricks to rebuild.

But someone keeps stealing their bricks; pointy-headed creatures from the bottom of the sea who arrive through a hole in the ground. Horse, Indian and Cowboy head after them and wind up on a wacky trek to the North Pole (where they are attacked by mad scientists in a mechanical giant Penguin). In the meantime, the shy Horse has to keep giving excuses to Madam Longree why he has missed yet another music lesson.

Even the description here doesn’t do the movie justice; it’s like Gumby on acid. You’d think that a movie as zany as the one I’ve described would move at light speed but that’s not it at all; in fact, one of the main knocks against the movie that I’ve seen is that the pacing is too slow, even for a movie that is only 75 minutes long. Still, there is that out there humor that seems to appeal to Europeans more than all but a select American audience; it’s a bit sad that Americans can’t find the charm and humor as easily in a stop motion film of toys being manipulated as they do in a CGI film of toys being manipulated (i.e. Toy Story).

WHY RENT THIS: Wacky and surreal, will most likely appeal to adults more than children.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes goes over the top with it’s out of left field.

FAMILY VALUES: Very surreal which might be a bit much for kids but certainly acceptable in terms of violence, sexuality, language and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A Town Called Panic was the first stop-motion animated feature to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is the winning entry of a fan video competition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $196,176 on an unreported production budget; chances are this wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinski

Arthur Christmas


Arthur Christmas
Who knew that Santa Claus was actually a South American dictator?

(2011) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Michael Palin, Robby Coltane, Joan Cusack, Jane Horrocks, Andy Serkis, Marc Wootton, Dominic West. Directed by Sarah Smith and Barry Cook

 

One of the most common questions children have about the legend of Santa Claus is how does he deliver so many presents in a single night (I don’t remember that being much of an issue when I was growing up – we just took it for granted that he did it and moved on). These days with the world population increasing and the demand for presents soaring it has become quite an operation indeed.

In fact, Santa (Broadbent) is more of a figurehead these days. The North Pole is a subterranean base that doesn’t appear on Google Earth. His gift-delivering operation is run with military precision by his eldest son Steve (Laurie) who fully expects that dear old dad will be passing along the job to him at the successful conclusion of Christmas this year.

In fact, the job has been in the same family for many generations. Grandsanta (Nighy) delivered the presents in the old sleigh with the reindeer but Steve has modernized, utilizing an incredible jet the size of a fleet of battleships using advanced stealth technology to stay off of the radar. As befuddled as Santa is, Grandsanta is as curmudgeonly, having felt left behind.

Arthur (McAvoy) is Santa’s younger son, a gentle soul who is a bit of a screw up. He has been given the relatively harmless position of handling the Letter Response Division. He tends to have more of the Christmas spirit in his heart which Steve looks at as a liability. Actually going out into the field and delivering presents terrifies Arthur.

When it’s discovered that one child’s present remained undelivered the reaction of Steve and Santa is a colossal “Ho-hum” which is a mighty change from “Ho ho ho!” One child left behind is considered acceptable collateral damage. However, Arthur doesn’t see it that way. To him, if one child isn’t considered special, than nobody can be. Despite his trepidations, he decides to see to the delivery himself and Grandsanta decides to come along for the ride, bringing the old sleigh out of mothballs. Grandsanta’s motivation is more to show up his progeny, however.

This is the first feature to be released from Aardman Animation since Flushed Away back in 2006 (they also have the feature Pirates! Band of Misfits slated for release in early 2012) and quite frankly, this isn’t up to the standards of the folks that brought us Wallace and Gromit. There’s plenty of imagination all right and some clever, sly humor that the studio is known for but not enough of the latter to really stand out like their other films did.

The squabbling Santas are a prime example. I get the feeling that the filmmakers were lampooning the commercialization of Christmas, but making the two elder Claus statesmen out to be doddering old fools or scheming old fools kind of violates their own mythology to a certain extent. The whole portrayal makes me wonder if the Santa Claus family isn’t a little bit guilty of inbreeding.

The vocal performances are dead on; Laurie, best known for his stint on ”House” plays Steve as a supercilious British Army officer, very regimented and expecting life to run like clockwork like it does in the Army when he was in Indja don’t you know. Nighy alternates between reminiscing about the good old days and bitching about the modern days like many grandsires do.

McAvoy is a bit bland as Arthur but then again Arthur isn’t really drawn all that well as a character. He is a bit of a bumbler and is good-hearted but has little to no self-confidence. His most identifiable characteristic is his nearly obsessive love for all things Christmas. We get that he has a good heart and he is a bit of a klutz but little more beyond that. Perhaps the writers didn’t think the kids in the audience care much about that.

The North Pole base and Santa’s S-1 jet are both marvelously done, as well as the armies of elves who make things happen. The backgrounds and artwork are amazing, and keeping with Aardman tradition have a bit of the Claymation look to them (Aardman’s earliest shorts and films were done with stop-motion Claymation). One thing about Aardman; you can always instantly tell their films apart from other studios.

I may be sounding a bit harsh on the movie, but this is a studio I hold to higher standards than most. In all honesty this is a pretty decent Christmas movie, but I had hoped for something that would be more of a perennial from a studio with as much imagination as this one has had over the years. It should do well enough to keep the kids entertained and it won’t have the adults squirming in their seats, but the wit is lacking and the sense of wonder fleeting. Not quite a lump of coal but not the present I was looking for.

REASONS TO GO: Has much of the wonderfully quirky Aardman sense of humor. Some of the North Pole and Santa’s spaceship scenes are spectacular.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit whiny in spots.

FAMILY VALUES: This got a PG rating for “mild rude humor” but in all actuality this is perfectly suitable for all members of the family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Peter Baynham’s last film was Arthur making this the second consecutive film he’s written that contains the word “Arthur” in the title.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely a theatrical experience.

FINAL RATING; 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill continues!

Chicken Run


Chicken Run

There's something fowl going on here.

(2000) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha, Miranda Richardson, Jane Horrocks, Imelda Staunton, Timothy Spall, Tony Haygarth, Benjamin Whitrow, Phil Daniels, Lynn Ferguson, John Sharian, Penelope Cruz. Directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park

From the studio that brought the amusing – nay, hysterically funny – “Wallace and Gromit” shorts comes this marvelously charming – and hysterically funny – modern-day retelling of The Great Escape.

Life on Tweedy’s Chicken Farm is bleak, indeed. Hens who don’t lay their daily quota of eggs end up on the chopping block, and eventually on the Tweedy’s dinner table. Ginger (Sawalha), a dare-I-say-it plucky little bird, dreams of better things; a paradise beyond the distant hills. Sadly, her escape plans always seem to go terribly awry, often due to the incompetence of her fellow fowl, and she winds up taking the rap for it and being sentenced to solitary for a few days.

Her fellow chickens are colorful and big-hearted, but don’t have a lot of material above the beak, if you get my drift. Still, they’re all behind her 100% (more or less), starting with the empty-headed, perpetually knitting Babs (Horrocks) to the stiff-upper-lip ex-RAF fryer…I mean, flyer…Fowler (Whitrow) and up to the feisty Bunty (Staunton).

Into the frying pan lands Rocky (Gibson) who flies into the pen quite unexpectedly. He is, as he puts it, the Lone Free Ranger, a true cock of the walk with a devil-may-care charm. In exchange for shelter (he’s on the lam from the circus he used to work in), he agrees to teach the cooped-up chickens how to fly ignoring the rather difficult obstacle that chickens can’t actually fly, aerodynamically speaking.

In the meantime, the bitter and mean-spirited Mrs. Tweedy (Richardson) has determined that egg production just doesn’t generate enough revenue to allow the Tweedys to do more than subsist. The solution is a monstrous chicken pie making machine. It’s simple, she tells her henpecked husband (Haygarth); “Chickens go in, pies come out.” The stalag has suddenly become a death camp.

There is a tremendous amount of wit and good-natured charm. The humor is a bit droll, and may go over the heads of kids that have been spoon-fed Rugrats, Pokémon and other truly wretched and poorly-drawn excuses for animation on the Cartoon Network. Still, the lil’ tykes will go for the panicky, somewhat silly chickens and the outlandish devices that Ginger and her penned-up mates come up with. Mel Gibson makes for a charming rogue. He’s carefree, cocky even but in the end he has a gizzard of pure gold.

Peter Lord and Nick Park, who produced, wrote, and directed Chicken Run, have a marvelous style. You get the distinct impression that these fellers both believe that their audience has at least half a brain cell in between them. They poke fun at British middle class life, while at the same time showing a genuine affection for it. This was the first animated feature from Aardman Studios and it set the bar pretty high, which they have since equaled and occasionally exceeded.

Some of the reference and the sometimes difficult to understand accents may go right over the heads of audiences (especially the tots) but most of the humor is universal. I found myself grinning maniacally throughout and Da Queen remarked at how cute she found the chickens. This is a winner, folks. Kids may find the flick’s Britishness a bit hard to fathom, but they’ll muddle through. I like this one far better than a lot of the animated features that flood the market in the second decade of the 21st century and I think that you will, too.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever and well-animated (even if you don’t like Claymation).

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be a little bit too British for American audiences, particularly for the younger set.

FAMILY MATTERS: Perfect for all audiences

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rocky and Ginger are named for the childhood chicken pets of co-director Nick Park.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a read-along version for younger viewers, as well as a fascinating featurette on the Claymation process itself.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $224.8M on a $45M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Hey Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger