(Sight and Sound Magazine, BFI)
The recent Toy Story 3 featured an opening fantasy sequence in which various oddly assorted toys starred in a madcap adventure that began as a Western train heist and ended with forcefields and porcine spacecraft. The Belgian-animated A Town Called Panic is commercially and technically on the other end of the scale, but it’s essentially the same idea; take a cowboy, an Indian, a horse smarter than either, a few other toy figures and try to sustain a shaggy-dog adventure with them all for 78 minutes.
A Town Called Panic is a stop-motion film, though with far jerkier motions than Wallace and Gromit or Coraline (2009) as the toys shuffle and wobble around, the “humans” attached to their little plastic supports. Wes Anderson went some way towards this approach in last year’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, whose animals were often shown openly as toy figures on blanket-like backgrounds. However, Panic’s randomly-scaled props add a zanier edge, as when a figure crashes through a coffee mug that’s bigger than he is. Anderson astutely described stop-motion as, “That magical effect where you can see how that is accomplished,” and it’s not hard to imagine budding child animators watching the antics in A Town Called Panic, then mustering their own toy armies at home and letting rip with a camera.
The effect is undoubtedly charming; whether it’s really suited to a feature-length film is more questionable. As one might guess, the characters started life in a series of shorts, created by Belgian co-directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, jointly known as Pic Pic André. (Aubier and Patar are two of the five credited animators on the feature.) Aubier originally created the characters for his graduation film at Belguim’s School of Visual Arts. The Panic stars introduced the Annecy Animation Festival a few years ago (where they were chased around by a grumpy caveman), while Aubier and Patar directed similar characters for British TV commercials (for Cravendale Milk). Although the short episodes were dubbed in English by Aardman Animation, the distributors have chosen to subtitle Panic in cinemas, presumably on the principle that silly French voices are funnier than silly English ones.
As whimsy goes, A Town Called Panic is nearer The Goodies than Monty Python, especially by the time that Horse, Indian and Cowboy encounter a monstrous robot penguin created by mad scientists for the sole purpose of chucking snowballs. The film’s charm comes from such nonchalant absurdities: Horse lying on a settee reading a paper, or kicking off his shoes before going to bed, or the characters playing cards on a lump of rock plunging towards the Earth’s core. None of it has any more point than a five-minute cartoon gag short, except perhaps the nostalgia that motivated John Lasseter to make Toy Story (1995). Patar has said that, “Because dinosaurs and the figurines from Manga comics were all the rage, kids lost interest in older, basic toys like cowboys and Indians and farm animals.”
Whether this film succeeds in rehabilitating them depends on one’s personal taste for gentle silliness, shouty voices and old-fashioned toys, though a receptive audience in the cinema can help a great deal. I found the film genial and amusing, but somewhat monotonous.