Anyone who was a child of the 70s or 80s, and watched a lot of television, will be familiar with the stop motion and claymation series which littered the schedules at the time. There were The Flumps, The Clangers, The Magic Roundabout, Morph, Postman Pat, Camberwick Green, Trumpton, Chigley and Paddington to name but a few. They were all fabulously realised gems of the era with witty theme tunes, loveable characters and wonderful plotting, usually centred around some kind of morality tale. In fact, so memorable were they, that I’m sure they’ve played a big part in shaping the imagination of an entire generation. So when I first discovered Panique au Village, I initially viewed it’s animated world through a veil of misty eyed nostalgia. Appearances, as are well documented, can be deceptive.
Filmed in 2002, Panique is the brainchild of Belgium based animators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, famous for creating maniacal universes. The pair were previously responsible for the Pic Pic André shoow (1988), which enjoyed success on the continent but was evidently deemed too strange to be translated into English, a fate which likewise, seems to have befallen Panique.
Trying to describe Panique is a tricky business; you really have to watch it for yourself in order to get the premise. Constituting a series of twenty 5-minute episodes, imagine if you can, a peculiar cross between the mis-en-scène of Postman Pat fused with the surrealist humour of Bellville Rendezous (2003). Pepper that with a collection of dysfunctional characters. The mischievous Coboy and Indien; Cheval (a horse), their father figure of sorts; and Steven, a gullible farmer with a farmyard full of disobedient animals. Then add the all-important ‘panic’ and you’re left with something rather special.
By special, I mean of course utterly bizarre. The devices employed to upset the Panique universe’s delicately balanced equilibrium are many, varied and often inextricable. This can occasionally lead to slightly lacklustre episodes. They range from the tightly plotted Le Gateau (a straight cut narrative about resisting the temptations of a cake, while being chased by Grizzly Bear) through to the completely out-there Une Belle Excursion (in which the family of farmers apparently go on a day trip to their own farm). I’m still clueless as to what the latter was really about but I wouldn’t mind a bit of whatever the creators were smoking the day they came up with it.
Some of my own confusion accumulated whilst watching Panique can probably be put down to ignorance. My French really isn’t as good as it should be; hence the dialogue, although minimal, falls on deaf ears. An explanation of what’s going on would have been useful. In many ways though, not being able to understand character conversations makes it more entertaining, particularly as the voice over work is so well played. And, as with most storytelling, the very best episodes need no translation or explanation.
Visually, Panique is a world of contradictions. The characters are merely appropriated Cowboy, Indian and Brittens toy sets crudely painted to suit each scenario. When static they are almost laughable to look at. Animated however, they come alive and are quickly recognisable as the character they portray. Similarly, the animation itself could be regarded as primitive. Over the years we’ve come to expect animation to make things as real as possible, particularly for actions like jumping. Convention demands that we see a visible amount of ‘air’ appear between a character and the ground. In Panique, the animation is stripped to its barest bones so that when a character jumps, a huge piece of Plasticine appears beneath them. Initially these are a distraction. Over time though, you grow to accept these crude instruments of animation and eventually they become invisible. I equate it to the jump cut, which, on paper, stands out a mile but has now been around long enough to actually efface moments of transition.
Far from detracting, the inconsistent visual elements of Panique are part of what makes it such an enjoyable viewing experience. There are some genuinely ingenious solutions employed to convey some of the more complicated effects, like the underwater environments, and the frequent fires which burn through the village. Hollywood’s kings of the banal (put your hand up Simon West) would probably be wise to apply some of Panique‘s imaginative ideas in their own turgid ‘art’.
There is also much pleasure to be had from the hyper-reality of it all. Characters dart about the screen at break-neck speeds and construct weird contraptions out of thin air. Arrows bounce around home plumbing systems. Meteorites land in soup. An armchair sprouts wings, lands in a tree and collects an egg. And what series would be complete without a scene where Moses kidnaps a group of farmyard animals in a triple-decker bus? Married with the spot-on sound effects, there are so many moments that creep up and force you to laugh out loud. Even the simplest things like the sound of maniacal footsteps are funny in the context of the Panique universe.
So, this is a hearty recommendation for Panique au Village. While some may find it a little hard to get to grips with, its utter randomness lends it an endearing quality, which in my experience, eventually wins over even the most skeptical of philistines. Bravo for Belgium and its surrealist humour. (It’s worth mentioning that it’s not easy to get hold of – I had to go through Amazon France to pick up the DVD – but it’s definitely worth the hassle. Those less willing to take the plunge can view an episode online at Nexus Productions).
Panique au Village (2002-2004)
Dir. Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar
Stars: Bruce Ellison, Benoît Poelvoorde, Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar