Terror in Tiny Town 

How did the plastic-toy heroes of A Town Called Panic evolve? Ask Creation's Charles Darwin.

There's a cuckoo, old-time, Saturday-morning vibe to A Town Called Panic. Something from the Gumby-Clutch Cargo-Mr. Bill file. When the main characters are a trio of two-inch plastic toys bumping around in crude stop-motion animation and communicating in corny falsetto, we know we're far off the beaten track. No smooth, seamless CGI. No voyages to exquisitely drawn planets. This is messy, lo-tech, lo-fi, lowbrow all the way. That's refreshing.

It's more than that, actually. Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar's thrillingly nutty animated adventure — original title: Panique au village — is not only one of the most visually exciting movies of the past year, it's a gateway to new directions in animation. Instead of leapfrogging into super-duper-hyper-realized wonderlands of the future, A Town Called Panic sets the Way-Back Machine for 1959 and ratchets up the absurdity instead — a smart counter to the prevailing trend.

Removing the hi-tech golly-gee from the equation puts the emphasis on writing, and the Belgium-bred Aubier-Patar team does not disappoint. Intoxicating whiffs of Georges Méliès, Jean Cocteau, Jacques Tati, and other antique French-language fantasizers blow through the ticky-tacky papier-mâché mountain village where Cowboy (voice of Aubier), Indian (Bruce Ellison), and Horse (Patar) live together in their house of tchotchkes.

Mel Brooks once observed that tragedy is when I cut my finger, and comedy is when you fall in a hole and die. Cowboy, Indian, and Horse do indeed fall in a hole, a hole so deep they have time to play a long, involved hand of cards on the way down. It all begins one day when the perpetually nervous Cowboy and Indian decide to give Horse a birthday present, a new brick barbecue. While ordering the bricks online, someone accidentally sets a coffee cup down on the computer keyboard and adds a large amount of zeroes to the number of bricks they're ordering. Soon, truck after truck after truck begins to arrive with their order, and the pile of bricks becomes impossible. They're so heavy they effectively tilt the world out of balance and open up a portal to another sphere of existence. Naturally, the boys investigate.

Ridiculous plot devices pop up with dizzying regularity. A race of amphibious batlike creatures living on the underside of a local pond bedevils our heroes mercilessly. Cowboy, Indian, and Horse travel to the center of the Earth, an underwater kingdom, a snowy wasteland, the lab of an evil team of scientists, etc. Meanwhile, back home, Horse's girlfriend, Mme. Longrée (voice of Jeanne Balibar), runs a music school where horses play piano (the keys are at floor level, naturally). She's forever trying to convince Horse to drop by for lessons, but he's too busy battling his way through the netherworld.

Through it all, the three protagonists maintain a studious passivity toward each new calamity. They yell a lot and perform outlandish stunts, but essentially things happen to them, not because of them. In other words, they're a lot more like regular people — disorganized, confused, dumb, but reassuringly ordinary — than they are like, say, Jason Bourne. Again, that's refreshing.

The original Panique au village was Aubier's graduation project at La Cambre in Brussels, the national school for visual arts. Patar met Aubier there, and in 2000 they developed the concept into a series of the same name for Belgian TV that later grew into the feature-length film. It's difficult to imagine the future of such a one-joke franchise, but the joke, while it lasts, is one the funniest, least-predictable picture shows you'll see this winter — a much-needed antidote to the twin curses of production bloat and imagination starvation.

Creation was evidently made to celebrate the 2009 bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, but its 21st-century topicality is undeniable. Potential audiences, particularly in the US, are still wrestling with what the film's preamble calls "the biggest single idea in the history of thought," Darwin's theory of evolution. Ponderous title notwithstanding, director Jon Amiel and his cast and crew — it was adapted by John Collee from the biography by Randal Keynes, Darwin's great-great-grandson — manage to put a human face on the character of the still-controversial English naturalist in the years leading up to the publication of his On the Origin of Species, a book that changed the world forever.

In the mid-19th century, some twenty years into his studies and after crisscrossing the globe to observe animals, Darwin's (Paul Bettany) health is fragile. He takes laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) to dull his stomach and heart pains and subscribes to the practice of hydrotherapy. Home life is complicated by the fact that his wife — and first cousin — Emma (Jennifer Connelly), a devout Christian, objects to the implications of his work.

But she and their children nevertheless bask in the glow of Darwin's restless curiosity, especially the eldest child, Annie (Martha West), her father's favorite, an inquisitive sort. Family outings always involve romping through the woods, beaches, and ponds, picking up starfish and such. The English countryside, lensed by cinematographer Jess Hall, is gorgeous, fully the equal of Greig Fraser's work in similar locales in Bright Star.

Darwin refuses to say grace at dinner. He tolerates religion but just cannot believe. He is shown to be conscious of the impact of his burgeoning theories of natural selection and transmutation. He's in awe of that impact, really. His colleagues Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) and Joseph Hooker (the wonderfully named Benedict Cumberbatch), men of science in that age of discovery, actively encourage Darwin to leap into the culture conflict. "You've killed God, sir!" Huxley exclaims. But Emma fears her husband may be denied heaven for challenging Christian dogma.

Hollywood used to make admiring "scientific genius" bios all the time but got out of the habit. That's a pity — if some of our home-grown Bible thumpers had been exposed to dramas like Creation at a tender age, we might have been spared a lot of bother. But of course now they'll avoid it like the plague. It's a pleasure to see such high-caliber actors as Bettany (last seen as Melbourne in The Young Victoria) and Connelly (Reservation Road, He's Just Not That Into You) translating a complicated worldview into a period piece of tolerant domesticity.

Emma is no book-burner. There's a common respect between her and her husband that outshines the narrow-mindedness Darwin faced in 1859, and which sadly still exists today. When daughter Annie gets in trouble at school for her "dinosaur talk" and is forced to kneel on rock salt, it's the first shot fired in the "intelligent design" war.

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