Tag Archives: Disney

CAPSULE: THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER (1987)

DIRECTED BY: Jerry Rees

FEATURING: Voices of Deanna Oliver, Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Thurl Ravenscroft

PLOT: A forgotten appliance and its fellow overlooked mechanicals set off on a journey to find their long-lost master, and encounter many perils along the way to their surprising reunion.

Still from The Brave Little Toaster (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The movie has a rough charm that comes from its modern setting, fresh characters, and willingness to flirt with bleakness in its darkest moments. That distinguishes it from what we’ve come to expect from animated films ostensibly aimed at children. But it’s not much different from the purest forms of fable, where danger and derring-do culminate in an important lesson.

COMMENTS: Disney’s rejection of The Brave Little Toaster is the stuff of animation legend: an enthusiastic animator thought Hugo-winner Thomas M. Disch’s “bedtime story for appliances” would be the perfect material for the studio’s first all-CGI feature. However, the cost-conscious House of Mouse had been burned before, taking a bath on the computer-live action hybrid Tron, and the notion of inanimate objects with hope and fears was strange and off-putting to the Disney execs who were about to be overthrown by Michael Eisner. Mere minutes after the animator completed his ambitious pitch, Disney fired him. That luckless wannabe-pioneer’s name? John Lasseter. So that all worked out.

The Brave Little Toaster that did emerge (hand-drawn, produced independently but with Disney financing) is a likeable modern-day fairy tale pitting Toaster and Friends against powerful forces that could easily destroy them, including nature, mass consumerism, and jealousy. Three of the film’s four songs (composed by Van Dyke Parks, none especially catchy) feature our heroes being threatened with destruction. Appliances are broken, electrocuted, submerged in raging rapids, vivisected for their parts, and thrown into a kind of abattoir for machines. At one point, a character’s fear of being short-circuited takes the form of a nightmare vision of a sinister clown firefighter. Toaster pulls no punches, which is bracing and shocking in this day of trigger warnings and safe spaces.

The film is helped immensely by its appealing cast. Beginning with Oliver, who has a good blend of overconfidence that matures into selflessness, the casting is solid all the way through, catching Groundlings veterans Lovitz, Hartman, and Tim Stack right before they would leap into television, presenting voiceover legend Ravenscroft (he’s grrrreat!) in a wholly new context, and even crafting an appealing performance from child actor Timothy E. Day. Toaster also boasts an unusually strong roster of behind-the-scenes figures from the impending Disney renaissance: Kevin Lima (Tarzan and Enchanted), Mark Dindal (The Emperor’s New Groove and Chicken Little), Chris Buck (Tarzan and Frozen), and Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) are all on the payroll. The most important credit is undoubtedly that of screenwriter Joe Ranft, who would go on to become the soul of the early Pixar films. In fact, Lasseter’s interest in the story and Ranft’s role in shaping it point to the biggest problem in judging Toaster on its own merits, and that problem rhymes with Shmoy Shmory.

The parallels between Toaster and the adventures of Woody and Buzz accumulate quickly: the young master whom the appliances revere, the tension between old-but-functional and new-and-shiny technology, the bespectacled nerd who exploits the heroes for financial gain, the terrifying climax in a junkyard, even the protagonist’s redemption and sacrifice for friends and cohorts—the echoes are strong, and perplexing to anyone who doesn’t know which one came first.

Disney may have been terrified of talking kitchen implements then (a fear they overcame with the enchanted accoutrements of Beauty and the Beast), but audiences proved quite capable of handling that particular level of strangeness, leaving us with a small but charming film that deserves at least a little light, sitting as it does in the shadow of what-might-have-been.

Besides, if you’re looking for true off-the-wall, WTF weirdness, may I direct your attention to one of this movie’s direct-to-video sequels, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars, in which the gang journeys to the titular Red Planet to rescue a baby from the clutches of a fascist refrigerator (voiced by Alan King!) Along the way, they meet a cluster of balloons who were let go by children and now float aimlessly through space, a group of appliances purposely designed poorly to further a planned-obsolescence scheme and who now harbor visions of an anti-human jihad, and the Viking I lander (voiced by DeForest Kelley!!!), who has a codependent relationship with a Christmas tree angel. How can a mere clown firefighter even hope to compete?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a warped, weird tone and perspective that, even a quarter of a century later, doesn’t quite resemble anything else. It’s kind of like a kid’s film, except with narrative ambiguities and shading that no kid could possibly be expected to pick up; it has the usual litany of musical numbers that, in the ’80s, were the exclusive provenance of cartoons, but its songs go to some decidedly odd places in the orchestration, and utter bleakness in their staging – one number is sung by sentient cars as they’re being crushed to death.” – Nathaniel Rogers, The Film Experience (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Jess Harnell, who said, “The film features mental illness, conspiracy theories, mutilation, suicide, murder, terrifying nightmares, desecration, fatalism and the nature of mortality, all done in a children’s film about talking appliances.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

THREE TAKES ON ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW (2013)

Escape from Tomorrow has been promoted to the List. Comments are closed on this preliminary review; please visit the official entry.

We received an unprecedented three separate reviews of Randy Moore’s controversial surrealist satire Escape from Tomorrow, the independent feature which was shot guerrilla-style at Disney World and which many originally supposed would be unreleasable thanks to Disney’s notoriously aggressive legal department. We have decided to compile these three individual takes into one giant mega-post for your enjoyment and edification. So here’s everything you need to know about Escape from Tomorrow, at least for now…

DIRECTED BY: Randy Moore

FEATURING: Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez, Jack Dalton, Danielle Safady, Annet Manhendru, Allison Lees-Taylor, Lee Armstrong, Stass Klassen

PLOT: A day in the life of an American family vacationing at Disneyland… or Walt Disney World… or at least some Disney related theme park. Only the day starts out with Jim (Roy Abramsohn) getting a call from his boss, who tells him that there’s no job for him to return to. Things can only go downhill from there, but everything is filtered through a cheerful veneer. From a spreading cat-flu epidemic, to stalking teen-age girls, brainwashing by Park cyborgs, it just goes to show that “bad things happen everywhere”… even in the Happiest Place On Earth. (synopsis by L. Rob Hubbard)

Troubled family man Jim White and his family try to enjoy their final day in Disney World, but he becomes distracted by a pair of pretty French teenagers, blackouts, and visions of sinister happenings in the idyllic theme park. As the intensity of White’s visions grow, so too do tensions between him and his family, and soon it seems he might lose them and himself altogether to the weird power of Disney World. Would he really miss them, though, or does Disney offer him something better? (synopsis by Ben Sunde)

A middle-aged man (who looks an awful lot like a husky Tom Cruise) gets promptly fired via telephone amidst a family vacation to Disneyworld, and proceeds to break down mentally and physically with his family while he covertly follows two barely-legal Parisian teenagers during his waltz through the happiest place on earth. (synopsis by Ryan Aarset)

1. L. Rob Hubbard

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Aside from the accomplishment of actually shooting on Disney property completely in plain sight, the film’s subversive commentary on Disney’s hold on the collective imagination has a solid bite that has not been previously approached as directly as it is here.

COMMENTS: “Jim, listen to me. Don’t let your imagination run wild. It’s a transitional period.”

This is the first full sentence of Escape from Tomorrow, and it’s a key—if not the key—to understanding exactly what writer/director Randy Moore is up to in this groundbreaking film. Thanks to its impressive and unique origins, Escape from Tomorrow now occupies a spot analogous to that The Blair Witch Project held over a decade ago (leaving aside the latter film’s massive box office) in independent film. And, like Blair Witch, Escape is starting to encounter backlash in reaction to the hype that accompanied its debut at Sundance as “the best film that you may never get a chance to see.” Most of that backlash centers around a perceived lack of bite in the satire, and to criticism of the acting and filmmaking as “amateurish” and “just plain awful.” To each his own, but since most of the initial discussion centered around the film as a cause célèbre when it appeared to be waiting to be crushed by Disney’s corporate paw, now that it has been released with very little reaction from The Mouse House, some are feeling cheated that perhaps the film didn’t go as far as it could taking on Disney… that it’s a missed opportunity.

Still from Escape from Tomorrow (2013)Those who hoped for a harsh slash and burn attack on Disney and its park practices will need to seek satisfaction elsewhere, but those who feel that the satire is too soft and too on the surface are missing the point entirely. Escape from Tomorrow is a comic nightmare of the subconscious: “Lynchian” has been used many times in descriptions of the film. But Moore isn’t a -style surrealist; his take in presenting the paranoia and sexual tension that lurks in the corners of The Happiest Place On Earth is closer to the work of .

“Imagination” is a word that is repeated throughout Escape from Tomorrow, and it is the coin of this realm. After all, the whole function of amusement parks such as Disney World is to provide a playland. What could be better than having your playland already thought out for you—characters, scenarios, every little thing? Disney may not have been at it the longest, but they have certainly been very thorough in “imagineering” characters and places that have Continue reading THREE TAKES ON ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW (2013)

SHORT: FRANKENWEENIE (1984)

DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: Barrett Oliver, Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern

PLOT: A young boy reanimates his recently deceased dog, but the undead pet is not a hit with

Still from Frankenweenie (1984)

the neighbors.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird; in fact, it’s an extremely conventional, if awfully charming, Frankenstein parody.

COMMENTS: Tim Burton’s second effort is a surprisingly fluid and assured bit of storytelling that attracted some remarkable talent for a short film, most notably a post-Shining Shelley Duvall (who had some sort of sixth sense for locating and working for offbeat auteurs) as Mom Frankenstein.  Dad Daniel Stern was an established thespian who would go on to greater fame as a voice actor.  Actor/director (Death Race 2000) appears briefly as the science teacher who puts the idea of resurrecting the dog in young Victor Frankenstein’s mind when he demonstrates how to make an ex-frog’s legs jump by applying electrodes.  Despite the ability Burton demonstrated here to attract and manage top talent, Disney famously dropped the ball and fired him after seeing Frankenweenie, without letting him try his hand at a feature, complaining that the film was too scary and a waste of resources.  In hindsight, it’s difficult to see why shortsighted Disney execs thought that Burton was too weird and dark to work for the Mouse.  It’s hard to imagine anyone thought this childhood farce would give any but the most overprotected weenie kid nightmares.  (More likely, the studio believed that anyone who would voluntarily shoot a featurette in black and white was not to be trusted).  The subject matter is only mildly offbeat—it’s a cute, clockwork parody of Frankenstein, a acknowledged classic.  There are laughs that are mildly morbid—when stitched-together Sparky springs a leak the first time he laps from his water bowl, or when Dad Frankenstein muses, “I guess we can’t punish Victor for bringing Sparky back from the dead,” but nothing alienatingly weird.  The directorial style is utterly traditional: the musical cues come at the expected moments, and when you see Victor playing fetch with his dog Sparky by rolling a ball out onto the suburban street, you almost groan at the pedestrian foreshadowing.  That’s not to say the movie is bad; in fact, it’s charming in its familiarity.  Kids enjoy it, but not half as much as boomer grownups nostalgic for their “monster kid” days when they used to stay up late on weekends and watch Zacherley or Ghoulardi host a Frankenstein marathon.  It’s a droll adult view of a child’s eye view of a James Whale nightmare.

Burton has been promising to remake the short as a full-length, stop-motion animated feature for years.  A release date is tentatively set for 2012 but the project doesn’t appear to have progressed beyond the planning stages.  In the meantime the original short is available, together with the short Vincent, on the Nightmare Before Christmas DVD.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Frankenweenie captures perfectly the spirit of whimsy mixed with the grotesque that typifies the Burton oeuvre.”–Deeky Wentworth, Surfin’ Dead (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Maxwell Stewart.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

SHORT: VINCENT (1982)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: Vincent Price

PLOT: A seven year old boy wishes he could be just like the Vincent Price he sees in old movies.

Still from Vincent (1982)

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  It’s not quite weird; more mildly macabre.  But it sure is cool.

COMMENTSVincent is a 5 minute poem, narrated by the mellifluous Vincent Price, about a morbid boy (also named Vincent) obsessed with emulating the horror icon’s tormented screen persona.  It’s told in a singsong, storybook cadence and given a superlative reading by Price (who was so flattered by the tribute that he proclaimed it a greater honor than a star on Hollywood Boulevard).  There are some specific references to Price’s work for the actor’s fans, though the short prefers to evoke their general atmosphere than to cite specific movies. Young Vincent’s daydreams involve dipping his aunt in wax, turning his dog into a zombie, and slowly being driven mad by his guilt over his unspeakable crimes.  A representative stanza: “Such horrible news he could not survive/For his beautiful wife had been buried alive!/He dug out her grave to make sure she was dead/Unaware that her grave was his mother’s flower bed.”  Vincent is visually impressive, deliberately shot in luminous black and white and drawing on the gloomy Gothic style of the old Universal horror movies with a powerful dose of German Expressionism.  (Burton denied being directly influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but he’s the only one who doesn’t notice the similarity to the silent psychological horror classic in the geometrically warped sets).  The look and childishly ghastly tone bring to mind a lighter version of the macabre black and white lithographs of Edward Gorey (who once created a primer where each letter illustrates the death of a tot).  Burton’s visual sensibility is already fully formed here, and the elements of his classic style—his comic, cathartic synthesis of fresh childhood innocence and the must of the grave—are already in evidence.  In fact, there may be no better example in the director’s entire body of work of than this crisp five minute exhibition of his talent for mixing the chuckle with the shudder.

Disney has traditionally made Vincent and Burton’s other pre-fame short Frankenweenie as extras on all their editions of The Nightmare Before Christmas.  The film is also included on the anthology Cinema 16: American Short Films (buy) alongside  Maya Deren‘s “Meshes of the Afternoon” and works by Andy Warhol, Todd Solondz and Gus Van Sant, among others.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a pastiche of styles lifted from the writings of Dr. Seuss and Edgar Allen Poe, and a range of movies from B-horror films, German expressionist works and the films of Vincent Price.”–Michael Frierson, Animation World Magazine (DVD)

[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Maxwell Stewart.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]