Laugh-out-loud moments in stop-motion and jihadism.
Like the prized tractor of the titular town’s resident angry farmer Steven, for a full 75 minutes cinema careens off sanity lane into the realms of the incredibly surreal—even for an animated movie. Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s Belgian stop-motion feature, A Town Called Panic, is truly surprising and entertaining; a veritable free-spirited feast of the absurd.
Horse, Indian and Cowboy all share a house together in a small rural town. You may notice the unusual order in which I list their names: this is because Horse (aka “Cheval” in Belgian French) owns the house, is the only one who has a car, and is the social group leader of the three. Our trio’s tale begins with Horse’s impending birthday, which the other two have forgotten. They are sent into a panic when one of the neighbours mentions it in passing the night before, and more mundane present ideas are shelved in favour of building their friend a brick BBQ as a gift. An accident with the zero button on the computer when ordering the bricks online triggers a comedy of errors which gets stranger by the minute, taking our friends on a journey to the arctic and back, as well as into some kind of alternate underwater world, replete with a well stocked general store.
Utilising stop-motion photography of models that look like old children’s toys, A Town Called Panic is purposefully lo-fi, setting it apart from the majority of contemporary animated productions. (Distinctive from any Pixar, Dreamworks, or Studio Ghibli offering, for instance, although entirely dissimilar to the output of Aardman Animations, who incidentally distributed the short-form TV serial the film evolved from.) I would roughly liken A Town Called Panic’s visual style to a mash-up of Robot Chicken and Sponge Bob Square Pants, by way of Wallace & Gromit, with a grungy tongue-in-cheek hat tip to Toy Story. This sketchy, comical style meshes naturally with the absurdist storylines and makes for fantastically entertaining viewing even if the film doesn’t attempt much in the way of thematic depth. A Town Called Panic is not complete fluff though—Aubier and Patar do riff a number of stereotypes in their characterisations, adding a refreshing, if slight, sharpness to the film’s humour.
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Chris Morris’s Four Lions, on the other hand, was not nearly as biting as I had expected from this rising British comic talent; his first feature film foray bordering, all too often, on slapstick. This is not to say Four Lions is at all unfunny or lacking sophistication; I was just expecting something more smartly satirical along the lines of Armando Iannucci’s scathing political send-up In the Loop. Despite its broader comedic tack, Four Lions successfully negotiates a range of sensitive socio-political themes with a measure of warmth and insight, and ends up achieving a surprising level of dramatic depth by the time it has reached its conclusion.
Satirically referencing Michael Winterbottom’s 2006 docudrama The Road to Guantanamo—which tells the (real life) story of the Tipton Three, British Muslims who spent two years detained at the infamous US naval base facility in Guantánamo Bay—Morris charts the trajectory of a group of English Muslim friends from Sheffield who choose the path of extremism—except that none of them, bar one, really has a sense of what that means or how to outwork their ideology. Over the course of the film we see them prepare for their own small part in what they see as the coming Jihad: two head off to an Al Kaeda training camp in Pakistan with disastrous results, whilst the others back in England focus on recruiting more ‘foot soldiers’ and deciding on an (in)appropriate target. And while this all sounds terribly serious, that they’re all bumbling idiots masks the gravity of the situation and humanises their actions to the audiences, many of whom will possess but a passing understanding of Islam; moderate or extreme. For example: one of the lads seriously floats the idea of sending explosives to targets via carrier pigeon and is later caught on camera accidentally blowing up a bird! Even the group’s zealous leader Omar (Riz Ahmed) is not immune to occasional bouts of idiocy and eventually proves not quite as professional as he’d like to make out.
As the boys slowly pull their ragged plan together, it’s not so much that you can see the wheels falling off the bus as that bus never had wheels to begin with. And then Morris, in the closing segment, delivers a deeply moving finale even as he keeps the film’s comedic core intact. What the director does well is to get the audience slowly and somewhat unknowingly to invest in the characters in a way that their lack of dimension may not, on the surface, seem to warrant. He accomplishes this feat by developing the group members’ interrelationships—friends which have history and personal ties, adding a depth to the group dynamic that seems strangely lacking in the individuals. I can’t tell if this is a purposeful strategy by Morris, but the results are that you’re likely to experience a level of emotive empathy that may surprise come the end of the film.