There’s a scene in Toy Story (1995) when a bucket-full of plastic soldiers are sent on a mission. At the time what seemed remarkable about the scene was the way that these beautifully rendered CGI models so accurately reflected their real-life counterparts; the ill defined detail, the surplus swarf, the baseplates of the figures. A Town Called Panic takes this aesthetic to its obvious low budget conclusion in that it is animated entirely with genuine toys, purchased by the directors from flea markets and charity shops, with authentic indistinct features and bits of flecked paint. The result is a witty, anarchic film full of (apparent) spontaneity and an endearing garage band quality.
Cowboy and Indian live with Horse in relative harmony in the sleepy town village of Panique, that is, when they are not arguing about whose turn it is to use the shower. When the pair realise they’ve forgotten Horse’s birthday they panic buy bricks on the internet in order to build a barbeque. However a keypress error results in millions of bricks being delivered to the house with disastrous results leading to a neighbourly conflict, accusations of wall stealing and the discovery of a parallel village beneath the waves. All the while Horse is desperately trying to impress the delectable, full-maned mare and music teacher Madame Longree by enrolling for a series of piano lessons.
What A Town Called Panic lacks in budget and polish it more than compensates for in terms of sheer enthusiasm and exuberance, indeed the very fact that the characters are so rigid (at times, they are flexible when the plot needs them to be) and openly stop-motioned makes things appear all the more refreshing in this age of shiny CGI perfection. This is not to say that directors Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar have in any way cut corners in some aspects of their production there are an impressive number of large scale scenes with multiple animated figures and the incidental models themselves have a wonderfully quirky design to them that recalls Mark Baker’s The Hill Farm (an acknowledged point of reference for the directors), it’s just the overall anarchy of the film is meant to convey this stream of consciousness, DIY aesthetic. Rather like South Park the exaggerated voices and deliberately puppet-show movements belie an underlying understanding of the animator’s art and how to subvert it. At times though the sheer pace can verge on exhausting as the film attempts to tie up loose ends while simultaneously upping the ante in terms of surrealism at every juncture. If the earlier sights of a showering horse are initially jarring but amusing the film’s weirdness increases in leaps and bounds as the apparently sleepy village (that consists initially of two residences and a police box but expands as the plot dictates) becomes the centre for alternate realities, wall-knapping, a rampaging mammoth, a snow-ball flinging robot penguin under the command of lab-coated scientists and an underwater world of wonder and danger.
Although a difficult film to pitch (it may be too roughly animated for children, too childish for adults) the never-ending stream of stupidity and inventiveness is infectious, like Gilliam’s Monty Python animations come to 3-D model life. Highly recommended for those who want something different, original and an antidote to overly polished mainstream film-making. Go in with an open mind, leave any pretensions by the door (no references to the Chapman Brothers please!) and let your inner child have 70 minutes out in the open.
A Town Called Panic is released under the ‘Hammer and Tongs Presents’ banner hopefully to allow this upliftingly daft film the wider audience it deserves. The DVD features a short set of soundbites from directors Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar and a trailer. A making-of documentary would have been truly fascinating!