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The Brave Little Toaster

Around [1980] Disney made a deal to do a live-action movie called “Tron,” with some computerized special effects. I didn’t work on it, but some friends did, and I saw the very first dailies, and what I saw – the potential I saw – blew me away. Walt Disney had always tried to get more dimension in his animation and when I saw these tapes, I thought, This is it! This is what Walt was waiting for! But when I looked around, nobody at the studio at the time was even halfway interested in it.

…This young live-action executive named Tom Willhite picked me out of the group because I kept talking to him about how we could use this new technology in animation. So he let me and a colleague put together a 30-second test, combining hand-drawn, two-dimensional Disney-style character animation with three-dimensional computer-generated backgrounds.

I was so excited about the test, and I wanted to find a story that we could apply this technique to in a full-blown movie. A friend of mine had told me about a 40-page novella called “The Brave Little Toaster,” by Thomas Disch. I’ve always loved animating inanimate objects, and this story had a lot of that. Tom Willhite liked the idea, too, and got us the rights to the story so we could pitch it to the animation studio along with our test clip.

When it came time to show the idea, I remember the head of the studio had only one question: “How much is this going to cost?” We said about the same as a regular animated feature. He replied, “I’m only interested in computer animation if it saves money or saves time.” We found out later that others had poked holes in my idea before I had even pitched it.

In our enthusiasm, we had gone around some of my direct superiors, and I didn’t realize how much of an enemy I had made of one of them. I mean, the studio head had made up his mind before we walked in. We could have shown him anything and he would have said the same thing.

Ten minutes after the studio head left the room I get a call from the superior who didn’t like me, and he said, “Well, since it’s not going to be made, your project at Disney is now complete. Your position is terminated, and your employment with Disney is now ended.”

Through Tom Wilhite’s perseverance, Disney did eventually collaborate with several other studios to make The Brave Little Toaster — albeit as a fully 2D movie — releasing it at the Los Angeles International Animation Celebration in the summer of 1987. And in ways both direct and indirect, the movie continues to affect the landscape of children’s cinema to this day. You see, the film was written and directed by Jerry Rees, with writing assistance from the late, great Joe Ranft. Their once and future colleague, John Lasseter, wrote the above quotation 20 years later.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it was this movie that brought together Lasseter, Ranft, and a bunch of other animators who went on to help build the titan of animation called Pixar. Without this movie and the work that went into it (particularly that 3D animation test), we would never have gotten such classic family entertainment as Finding NemoThe IncrediblesUp, the Toy Story trilogy, and whatever great movies are in development over there right now.

This would be reason enough to feature the picture in this blog series, but the film continues to be very fondly remembered in its own right. A full decade after its initial release, the film was still popular enough to warrant two back-to-back DTV sequels, one released in ’97 and the other in ’98. Just a couple of years ago, Deanna Oliver (who voiced the eponymous Toaster) went to her son’s deployment ceremony before he went to Afghanistan, and several soldiers in attendance presented her with toasters to sign.

Unfortunately, this popularity didn’t translate into much future success for any cast and crew members who didn’t move on to Pixar. Joe Ranft had arguably the best career out of anyone involved, going on to co-write, co-direct, and even voice act in such timeless classics as Oliver and Company, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beastand pretty much every film that Pixar made until his death in a 2005 car accident. Meanwhile, director Jerry Rees went on to make a record 13 attractions (and counting!) for various Disney theme parks.

As for the voice cast… well, there really isn’t much to say. Jon Lovitz of course went on to a respectable acting career, and Phil Hartman turned into a bona fide celebrity before his tragic and untimely murder in 1998, but that’s about it. Deanna Oliver and Wayne Kaatz found more success as writers — Oliver worked on several episodes of “Animaniacs” and they both worked on “Tiny Toon Adventures.” Timothy Stack went on to some minor movie and TV roles, but nothing noteworthy. The legendary Thurl Ravenscroft had all but retired after this movie, surfacing only for a handful of voice-over roles (including reprisals of his character for both Toaster sequels) before dying of prostate cancer in 2005. Timothy Day had the briefest career out of them all, dropping completely off the radar in 1987 with only two other credits to his name.

But enough of all that. Is the movie any good? Well… it’s weird.

I admit, it took me a while to get a handle on this one. For the first ten minutes or so, it’s just these five characters jumping and dancing around. I hasten to add that our five characters are a radio (Lovitz), Lampy (Stack), an electric blanket named Blanky (Day), a vacuum cleaner named Kirby (Ravenscroft), and Toaster (Oliver). How could they talk? What were they doing? Your guess is as good as mine. But about fifteen minutes in, we finally learn that these appliances are all stuck in a cottage, after their beloved young master (Rob, voiced by Kaatz) and his family apparently moved away. At this point, they’re just keeping the house clean and waiting for him to come back, if he ever does.

So the movie is about everyday objects coming to life when nobody is around, all of whom are devoted to the child who uses and loves them. The comparisons to the Toy Story trilogy are self-evident. Between this film, Toy Story, and Cars, I think it’s obvious that Lasseter’s fascination with bringing life to inanimate objects is nothing new.

Really, the whole movie seems like a blueprint for the Toy Story trilogy, in hindsight. In the first act, we meet Air Conditioner (Hartman), who’s become so upset over his lack of use that — rather like Lotso — his bitterness has become outright hatred. I should also point out that the A/C finally overheats and breaks (read: dies), introducing the concept of mortality — a theme prominent in all three Toy Story films — at a very early point. At the end of the second act, we see monstrosities pulled together from different appliance parts, uncannily resembling Sid’s creations. And then comes the start of the third act, which deals with the age and obsolescence of these appliances (Stinky Pete, anyone?). Finally, the climax takes place in a junkyard, much like the climax for Toy Story 3.

Anyway, let’s get back to the opening of the film. The appliances eventually learn that the cottage is up for sale and the master really isn’t coming back. So by the end of the first act, our mechanical heroes are out on the road in search of their human companion.

The plot to this film is quite uneven. Before we get to the scenes that directly lead into each other and form a coherent narrative, we get scenes that are there simply to pad out the running time (the scene by a pond at the start of the first act) and some that are pure what-the-fuckery (the infamous nightmare sequence). We also have a few musical numbers here and there, all of which are terribly mediocre. Additionally, there were several times when the plot was contrived to an almost deus ex machina degree.

I should also point out that the film is rather blase in its rules regarding the appliances’ abilities. Their electricity needs are inconsistent, their durability varies according to the needs of the plot, and Kirby’s extension cord is ridiculously long. Then again, why am I asking for logic in a film where these gadgets can talk and move of their own free will?

With all of that said, the movie does have its strong points. One of the strongest is that the movie takes on some surprisingly dark imagery. There’s one particular scene in which a blender is dismantled for parts, and it’s presented in a genuinely chilling fashion. This is made all the more impressive upon the realization that such a mundane act as taking out a blender motor could be made to look so scary.

That brings me to another of this film’s great strengths: Its characters. It took a while, but these characters came to be genuinely sympathetic by the halfway point. They were flawed and they bickered a lot, but they came through for each other in some surprising ways when the need arose. Best of all, the five protagonists were very distinctive. They all had their own unique personalities, with a surprising amount of nuance for each.

Watching our heroes work together and grow stronger over the course of this film, it became surprisingly easy to root for them. Then again, it also helped that the stakes were set so high at the outset, and the possibility of getting blown up or smashed to pieces along the way is a very real one. The result is a sort of vicious cycle: The characters are sympathetic partly because the threats are real and we want to see them overcome the odds, and the horror is effective because the characters are sympathetic.

And again, we’re talking about household appliances. Things that break down and get thrown out every day. Things that do not and should not grow personalities of their own. And yet the movie makes them into sympathetic characters largely by embracing their disposable nature. I know that Toy Story did this to similar effect, but at least we grow emotionally attached to our childhood toys. Who on Earth gets emotionally attached to a toaster?

It’s a good thing that the appliances are such great characters, because the human characters are uniformly terrible. There aren’t many human characters in this film, but they’re all presented as idiotic and impossibly cartoonish in their demeanor. Come to think of it, the five main appliances in this movie are closer to being human than the human characters are. Wrap your head around that one!

The character designs are great throughout and the animation is remarkably solid, though there were a few glaring continuity errors here and there. I was also very fond of the sound design, with various squeaks and clunks to accompany the characters’ movements. That said, the musical numbers still sucked.

Much like its main characters, The Brave Little Toaster is obsolete by modern standards, but it was clearly built to last and it was made with a lot of heart. There’s nothing in here that hasn’t been done and done better by the Toy Story films, but there are precious few kid’s films out there to reach those lofty heights.

As a film in itself, I’d say it’s still interesting enough to warrant a look. As a historical relic, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. If you haven’t seen this film, you don’t know Pixar.

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