The first time I watched the stop-motion comedy A Town Called Panic, I was alone in my bedroom. I did not laugh.
It was an exasperating experience. The filmmakers tried to make a children’s film the way a child might—by taking seemingly found toys and anthropomorphizing them. That means Cowboy, Indian, Horse, Postman and Policeman all share the characteristics of an over-caffeinated eight-year old: they’re high-strung, fast moving, and in a constant state of panic. Their fever-pitch energy is present from the beginning, when Cowboy and Indian are reminded of Horse’s imminent birthday. They frantically attempt to throw a party together, ordering bricks online to build a barbecue pit (they intend to purchase fifty bricks, but mistakenly hold the zero key down and end up having fifty million delivered to their house). The characters move and speak in a shrill manner, taking each turn of plot and setback as an excuse to further amp up the mania.
Watching the cracked-out, stop-motion zaniness unfold was grating. I was relieved when the ordeal was over.
And yet, later the same evening I found myself watching the movie again, this time with friends. It was an accident; the DVD was playing on a loop, a button was accidentally pushed and suddenly Lost night was interrupted by French-speaking meth-head toys. Curiosities were piqued, so the movie played out. My company was quiet, not laughing or cursing the movie, but chuckling every once in a while. They were amused.
Confession: in the company of friends, I laughed too.
Company (or lack thereof) has the potential to change how we react to a film. At its best, moviegoing facilitates unspoken emotional communion. Reactions, whether positive or negative, are infectious (it’s why The Blair Witch Project will never again be as frightening as it was during that first sold-out midnight screening). This goes double for comedies. A joke is told onscreen, one person laughs, and, in a fraction of a second, unconscious copycat chuckles scatter across the audience until an entire cinema is chortling. Conversely, an empty theater (e.g. my bedroom) can spell death for a comedy.
Among friends, A Town Called Panic is charming and cathartic. Yes, it’s a juvenile work of art emerging straight from an over-caffeinated eight-year old’s head, but its guileless nature is refreshing. Acrimony needs isolation; in this case, it was easily undone by the laughter contagion. The simple, bright glow of the color, the lightning-quick pacing of the stream-of-conscious plot, the use of iconic American images, the challenge of keeping up with unusually fast-moving subtitles—absorbing the film was now a game, and watching it, I was a kid again.
Reviewed: A Town Called Panic
Dir. Stephane Aubier & Vincent Patar