Belgium has a rich background in comic books, but when it comes to animation there's not too much happening here. Sure, we have Picha (Blanche Neige: La Suite), most other attempts at producing something worthwhile usually amount to very little. But there is hope. Aubier and Patar turned their much-lauded short series into a feature-length film, throwing their hyperactive Cowboy and Indian couple into their biggest adventure yet.
Panique au Village was first released as a 20-episode short series made for Canal+, sadly I never got to see those episodes. The first time I saw Horse, Cowboy and Indian in action was when they appeared in an intro for Cineart (a Belgian cinema distribution company). I didn't make much of it at the time but when I watched the trailer for the feature-length film I recognized them immediately. Not entirely convinced yet, I sat down hoping the directors duo would do something to turn that feeling around. And they certainly did.
Panique au Village is a hyperactive stop-motion animation film, built around a strange little trio of characters. Cowboy and Indian are two friends living together, assisted by a talking horse. There are some secondary characters, most of them added just for laughs or plot progression. It doesn't take long before thing go wrong and the three of them end up in an earth-shattering adventure. Don't expect a decent plot, there simply isn't any. It is sacrificed completely for laughs, fun and insane situations.
The film starts with the birthday of Horse. Cowboy and Indian plan on building him a barbecue but when they order the bricks online they end up with 50 million bricks rather than 50. This kick-starts their adventure leading them to the center of the Earth, the icy plains of the North Pole, a mechanical penguin and finally ending up right below their own house once again. That's a lot of adventure for a mere 70 minutes of film.
The animation is pretty crude. Stop-motion asks a lot of time and effort to produce, and while you can see a lot of effort went into creating this film it doesn't show in the way of fluid animation. The settings are cool though, with lots of small details bringing broad smiles to my face. For people not familiar with the series (like myself) it might take a few moments to get used to the particular style, but five minutes into the film I stopped noticing the crude animation and actually enjoyed the hyper-active motion of the characters.
Whatever soundtrack there is, it is used for comedic effect. It's fun though not all that special. More important is the incredible voice acting, taking the film to a whole new level. I can't stretch enough that this films needs to be seen with the French voice actors doing their thing. The Dutch audio track is horrible and I can't see an English track adding anything good to the film. The rough and snappy French accents are a real hoot and really help to bring the (purposefully) simplistic dialogs to life. As a little extra, fans of cult cinema might recognize the voice of Benoit Poelvoorde (Man Bites Dog) as one of the secondary characters.
Like most series that are being adapted into a feature-length film, it proves difficult to completely step away from the series format. Panique au Village can feel a little episodic at times, introducing new settings and characters every ten minutes, then completely abandoning them a little time after. It's not necessarily a bad thing, just don't go expecting a tightly plotted film where everything gets nicely tied up in the end. It's not that kind of film anyway.
What makes this film is its crude exterior (animation and voice acting) coupled with the strange and somewhat random sense of humor. Once it hits, the magic remains alive throughout the whole film and there's a lot of grinning and laughing to be done. It's a short film but with all the madness going on that's probably for the best. There's a lot of adrenaline running through the film making it a pretty exhausting affair, even when you're just watching from your lazy couch.
If you have a soft spot for claymation or you're just looking for a zany comedy, Panique au Village will not disappoint. It's not as accomplished as Mary And Max or Coraline, but it charms with its straightforward appearance, absurd humor and chaotic fun.
Check the trailer with some comfortable English subtitles.