Occasionally, one stumbles across a movie so pure in its concept and execution that it doesn't seem right at all to try and crack it open, to explain how it works; it's much more tempting to just grab every man, woman and child you stumble across and beg them to please, for the love of God, do whatever it takes to see this film. Unfortunately, the Belgian stop-motion animated feature A Town Called Panic (a very rough rendering of the original French Panique au village, "Panic in the village") is not something that every man, woman and child I stumble across will be able to see: in fact, it is a movie receiving only the most extraordinarily limited of releases in America, while I do believe it has already come and gone in Europe. The good news is that the film is likely to hold up quite well on television viewing, so at the very least consider this my months-in-advance urge that please, for the love of God, rent this movie when it comes out.

Based on a Belgian TV series of the same name from 2000 (though calling it a "series" is being generous: it was a collection of 20 five-minute bumpers aired on one of the country's artier TV stations, and given a fairly comprehensive release in the rest of the world thanks largely to Aardman Animation Studios), Stรฉphane Aubier and Vincent Patar's movie is a weird, manic adventure set in a rural village, where three friends all live together in a bright yellow house: Cowboy (voiced by Aubier), Indian (Bruce Ellison) and Horse (Patar). And lo and behold, but these three are just exactly what it sounds like: a combination of painted plastic toys, the little 3" tall kind that are unposable and stand on oval bases, and some bright molding clay used for accessories. To call this aesthetic "cheap" is to be polite; it is about as rough and crude as any animation that I have ever personally seen. Though a number of different poses are used for each of the characters, to simulate walking or the like in the rawest way possible, much of the film consists of a stiff, inflexible plastic character moving around a set like-

-Like a kid is just "walking" it around in a playroom, and therein we come to the point. While I don't know if I quite agree with the consensus that A Town Called Panic is a "children's" movie - though any child who grows up watching this sort of thing is going to grow up to become incredibly cool - it is certainly a movie built from a child's perspective of playing with toys. I can't think of a way to express that more clearly. But it's exactly how the film feels, with the great big broad personalities expressed by a rather indispensable team of voice actors (thankfully, Zeitgeist has seen fit to release the film subtitled, rather than dubbed) with a sort of clowny, play-acting quality that feels pretty much exactly like when a kid "speaks" for her toys in caricature of the way adults talk. And too, the personalities of the characters are driven purely by imaginative energy, and not the way the character "ought" to be: there's nothing at all "Cowboy and Indian" about Cowboy and Indian, who are presented as tremendously enthusiastic kids with absolutely no brains whatsoever.

All of that, I fear, paints a picture of the film as some kind of charming, innocent fantasy about silly characters in a rural Neverwhere, and that is absolutely not at all right. As anyone who's seen the shorts know (they're readily available online, though the only English-friendly versions I could find were dubbed, not subtitled), life in this village is a matter of the most free-wheeling absurdity, the kind of surrealism that is so aggressively far removed from anything barely resembling real life that it starts to feel a bit dangerous to watch. I mean that as a compliment. What happens, beginning with Cowboy and Indian's discovery that they missed Horse's birthday, leading them to decide to build him a barbecue pit, and accidentally ordering 50 million bricks to get the job done, and on to all that follows, from Horse's love affair with the local music teacher to the thievery of a family of gill men, follows its own kind of dream logic rather consistently, but it's basically watching insanity spinning out right in front of your very eyes, and the cast's shrieking, manic line deliveries don't help soften that feeling.

This is, incidentally, the reason I don't quite feel right calling A Town Called Panic a children's film, although except for some brief dabs of bad language ("shit" said in English, several religious curses), there's absolutely nothing about it that a kid couldn't handle. Indeed, a kid could probably handle the intense jumps of logic and impossible representational elements of the piece better than an adult, although this particular adult had quite a fun time plugging in and letting the movie's anarchic sensibility hit me over and over again, like an air cannon.

What we have here is an exercise in pure gag logic: though there are continuities of space and character that give the film a nice, solid grounding in the relatable, all that A Town Called Panic is really trying to do is to present 75 solid minutes of non-stop absurd imagery and slapstick, and this it does with absolute success: I can't remember the last time I laughed so long and so hard in a movie. Though it must be said, the experience is so very intense and overwhelming that, after a while, it becomes fatiguing, and I think that even at 75 minutes the movie is perhaps a touch longer than it has to be. What it reminds me of more than anything else is the terribly underappreciated Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters: a flow of pure, unbridled surrealism that is so intensely hilarious for so long that it essentially breaks you. This are awe-inspiring movies; but they are also a commitment of emotion and stamina that is much more demanding on the viewer than you'd expect from a TV-derived cartoon feature.

Let me not mince words: I absolutely loved A Town Called Panic, both for its boundless hilarity and its remarkably idiosyncratic visuals, which for all their defiant crudity are also outstandingly appealing and damn cute (the penguin tank in particular makes me coo with delight just to remember it). But I would also not be inclined to watch A Town Called Panic over and over again, for fear of losing my mind. It's a crazed, magnificent comedy that is more hysterical, in both senses of that word, than any other film I saw from 2009. Not for everybody's tastes, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

9/10