My 8-year-old said the Belgian animated feature A Town Called Panic reminded her of the Disney Channel's Phineas and Ferb, and in my household there's scarcely higher praise. Visually, it couldn't be more different: it's shot with toy plastic figures (they still have platforms attached to their feet) and stop-motion animation, which gives the proceedings an endearingly kid-made herky-jerky quality. But the combination of untethered imagination, a fundamental innocence and charm, and a blissful dada quality that yields belly laughs makes it fully worthy of a ride-along with Perry the platypus.
The premise will be grasped instantly by any kid who's ever put together a motley assemblage of mismatched toys: A horse, a cowboy and an Indian all share a house together. (Stop me if you've heard this one before.) While Horse (voiced by co-writer/director Vincent Patar, who sounds like Jerry Orbach gargling raspberries) nurses an infatuation with an equine piano teacher, the inept Cowboy and Indian plot a birthday surprise for him: a barbecue pit that goes awry when the Internet brick order arrives off by a few tens of millions. For reasons any first-grader will intuit, this of course results in a raid by fish-man burglars, a mission to Atlantis, a plunge to the earth's core, and lots of airborne cows.
A Town Called Panic made a splash as a Belgian TV series in the early 2000s, and as with almost all feature-length expansions of animated TV shows, the extra running time isn't a blessing. The movie's energy flags in its second half, and it lacks the tight story construction that the filmmakers' associate Aardman Studios brings to their classic Wallace and Gromit shorts. What it has, though, is its own cheery, associative looseness and uniquely loopy humor — like the sight gag of the freshly showered Indian blow-drying his headdress — and a lovable Gumbyesque look that provides pleasure even when nothing's happening. The movie's in subtitled French (replete with some very mild cursing), but its goofiness transcends all languages. "I don't like the words," my 5-year-old said, "but the pictures are great."