I hate to keep having to repeat myself, but 2009 was a kickass year for animation. I said the same months ago having only loved “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Ponyo,” and “The Princess and the Frog,” but the past two weeks have afforded me the opportunity to catch the French language stop motion farce “A Town Called Panic” and Sony/Columbia Pictures’ “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” both of which expand the scope and breadth of last year’s animated achievements, if not necessarily setting the highest benchmarks themselves.
“A Town Called Panic” is a minimalistic affair, aesthetically not unlike Cartoon Network’s “Robot Chicken,” but without its “Family Guy” brand of referential humor. Rather “Panic” is a surrealist comedy of error: zany and unpredictable for the entirety of its breezy 75-minute running time.
The film, based on a Danish television series animated by Aardman Studios of “Wallace and Gromit” fame, begins with three characters (Cowboy, Indian, and Horse) and a simple premise: Horse’s birthday. Of course, Cowboy and Indian have forgotten gifts, and the plot quickly ramps into absurd comic situations including but not limited to the accidental purchase of 50 million bricks, a journey to the center of the earth, and a run-in with a mischievous team of scientists and their enormous mechanical penguin.
Okay, it may not be a marvel of storytelling, but in a way, that's kind of the point. What really works about “A Town Called Panic” is the kinetic goofiness of it all. It has a refreshing, careless vitality to its pacing that may turn off or annoy as many as it delights, but those who sync with its weird sensibilities won’t be disappointed.
Then you have “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” which if nothing else, is a pretty incredible looking film on blu-ray. Besides being a non-Pixar branded CGI outing, it had another strike against it from inception, being adapted from one of my favorite children’s books. The art direction as showcased in the trailer seemed overly cartoony, which clashed with my memory of the book’s illustrations.
Ironically enough, it’s precisely because “Meatballs” is so unabashedly cartoony that it ended up winning me over. It’s one of the only CG films I’ve seen that doesn’t feel like either an emulation of Pixar’s oeuvre or witless kiddie pandering. The dialogue is sharp and the visual gags are clever, but what I appreciated most was the sardonic bite to the joke writing. And it's no wonder coming from directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, two of the creators behind MTV’s adult-oriented “Clone High” animated series.
“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” is an immediately palatable film that for me achieves what some argued “Kung-Fu Panda” did last year in besting Pixar’s work on a level of pure entertainment. I wouldn’t argue that “Meatballs” is a better film than “Up,” but I do think it’s more fun.
I'm tempted to say these films close the book on 2009 animation, but with the Oscar nominations just released, there's still this "Secret of Kells" thing to check out. I'm hoping for another pleasant surprise.
PANIC - 4/5
MEATBALLS - 4/5