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.
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).