Western Film WTF: A Town Called Panic (2009)

One is temped not to include this delightful Belgian animated film, because although it animates three characters who resemble cowboy, Indian, and horse plastic toys, they live together in a single house in the country, with the two human characters behaving like squabbling sibling and the horse acting as their put-upon father. They have odd, almost dadaist day-glo adventures that involve ordering too many bricks to build an outdoor barbecue, having trouble getting to piano lessons on time, and fighting with an undersea kingdom of gill men.

But the film never really lets go of the fact that these are Western toys. The Cowboy and Indian frequently take the iconic poses of their characters, the Cowboy squatting down like he's stalking in the sagebrush, the Indian lifting one hand in the "how!" gesture. The former carries a rifle, the latter a bow and arrow, which they actually use throughout the film. They are briefly chased by a bear, which was a frequent occurrence in the short films that led to this movie.

And the whole undersea kingdom of gill men bit, which takes over the last half of the movie, feels lifted, in part, from "Phantom Empire," in which Gene Autry's ranch was directly on top of a futuristic society. I don't know if they were actually inspired by that — this is, after all, a film which takes a detour to a frozen tundra where scientists have built a giant penguin to throw huge snowballs thousands of miles, seemingly just to be mean. I can't think of any Western film that might have inspired such a scene. But even when a film accidentally lifts from "Phantom Empire," it still feels a little bit more like a cowboy movie.

As you might be able to tell from me sketching it bits of plot, the film is deliriously weird. It's densely packed with little jokes, themselves quite weird. Here's one brief scene, just to give a sense of the film:

In the world of the gill men, our heroes find themselves in a gill man department store. They buy a fountain that rains pearls rather than water, and set it up outside the window of their antagonists, who, seeing the pearls, become convinced it is snowing, despite being underwater. The horse shows up at the door, dressed as Santa, and explains that all his gifts have fallen down a hole in the ocean's floor. The gill men antagonists swim down the hole to help, and the Cowboy and Indian drop a boulder on the hole, trapping them.

This all takes, I don't know, a minute, so trust me when I say the film is dense; Roger Ebert even argues it wasn't necessary to watch the film in entirety, or straight through, because it's entirely satisfying to just watch little bits of the film whenever you're in the mood.

That's certainly an option. With its pop art colors, its diorama settings, and its haywire plotting, the film can be enjoyed in pieces. I know this is true: I fell asleep the first time I saw it, due to exhaustion, and so only saw the film in dreamlike segments when I would rouse myself enough to take in a minute or two. I still loved it.

But it works as a movie. Not so much because of the plotting, which is deliberately episodic and chaotic, but because the film establishes jokes and then elaborates on them throughout, growing daffier and daffier each time. (And example: The music school director keeps calling the horse to see why he is late for class, and by the end of the film she is calling him on phone at the Gill Man residence at the moment he arrives, reaching him in a place she shouldn't know exists at a number she couldn't possible have.)

In this was, an already gently surreal film, bit by bit, using its own internal logic, becomes increasingly unmoored from reality. And I think this buildup is necessary.

One cannot simply see a giant robot penguin toss a snowball halfway across the earth and think, well, of course. One must build toward that.


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