I’m not the first critic to compare A Town Called Panic to the Toy Story franchise and I dare say I won’t be the last, but in a year that has seen the third instalment of Pixar’s saga released, the (probably unintentional) similarities between the two films are fascinating.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the Toy Story films are about the secret lives that toys lead when no one’s watching: when held by kids, their movements are unrealistic and jerky, but when alone, they move with all the convincing perambulation of live beings (with the exception of the vacuform toy soldiers, with their immovable feet). The lead characters of A Town Called Panic, Cowboy, Indian and Horse, move unrealistically like toys controlled by invisible children, but unlike the characters in Toy Story, they are not self-aware toys, simply living creatures in the Panic universe.
A Town Called Panic therefore is a film that could have been made by the human characters in Toy Story moving their toys about on stop-motion camera and dubbing on silly voices in post-production. The byzantine plot, with its non-sequitur twists and turns, shows a charming childlike approach to the storytelling, which reinforces the impression that the film was made by invisible children - by contrast, the Toy Story films feel written by nostalgic adults pining for their lost childhoods.
The film starts like any charming but simplistic children’s TV show: three characters share a house and have inoffensive misadventures. In this case, it’s Horse’s birthday so Cowboy and Indian, wanting to buy him a birthday present, choose a brick barbeque online, but press the wrong button on the keyboard and accidentally buy a million bricks, which eventually swamp the town, with hilarious consequences. However, after this initial half-hour of plot plays out, the film becomes gradually more fantastical with the arrival of underwater mermen (whose vast subterranean world exists beneath the town, accessible through ponds and puddles), mad scientists, a trip to the North Pole and a giant robotic Penguin… With these increasingly outrageous developments, the film turns into a surrealistic fantasy with roots in the Victorian silent era - recalling Mélií¨s’s adaptations of Jules Verne - as well as Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit series.
The world and characters of A Town Called Panic first appeared in a series of 5-minute short films of the same title from Belgium, which have since been dubbed into English by Aardman animation (who produced the Wallace and Gromit series), screened on Nickelodeon and have been further disseminated on YouTube and other internet sites. The movie has been taken on by music video creators Hammer and Tongs and just like with Aardman for the shorts, this seems like a perfect fit as director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith were responsible for a Disney film, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Although it had CGI as advanced as Toy Story‘s, some scenes used simple effects such as the lead characters turning into knitted toys after a reality shift, or one planet’s defence system involving cinema’s oldest joke, a rake that hits characters in the face as they stand on it. Hammer and Tongs’ second film, Son of Rambow, took this interest in simple filmmaking one stage further, dramatising the attempts of a boy to remake Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood on video camera with schoolyard special effects.
Jennings and Goldsmith weren’t involved in the production of A Town Called Panic and, unlike Aardman, have decided to keep the original soundtrack, subtitled, for the UK movie release, and the film has already demonstrated its viral appeal on the internet. This is low-fi, fantastical story telling for the ADHD generation, who want to change genres and situations with the speed of the TV remote control. The unpredictability of the plot, which remains engaging as it lurches from one unlikely scenario to another, makes it perfect viewing for young children as well as adults who have ever thought of making movies with their children’s toys. In some respects, this makes A Town Called Panic more honest than the Pixar franchise as it uses tools available to kids and tells its story in a way that makes it feel collaborative with the target audience. This feels like a new kind of storytelling (which has also turned up recently in the field of comics with the web comic Axe Cop and in viral YouTube videos made with Lego), which as well as being fun to watch for all ages, has the tactile aesthetic that might inspire a new generation of filmmakers, particularly those who are savvy with internet marketing.
A Town Called Panic may be cheap and somewhat disposable in its storytelling and production, but it has enough unexpected qualities and joie de vivre to turn into as much of a cult hit as the shorts that preceded it, and hopefully it will be successful enough to warrant another cinematic adventure for everyone involved.