Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Brave Little Toaster (1987)

Kirby: “Why don't you just shut off?"
Air Conditioner: “Oh, I'm really scared there, Kirby. What are you gonna do, suck me to death?"

Title: The Brave Little Toaster
Genre: Animation
Year: 1987
Rated: Technically NR, but I’m guessing G in ‘87…PG by today’s standards.

Deanna Oliver as Toaster
Thurl Ravenscroft as Kirby
Jon Lovitz as Radio
Timothy Stack as Lampy
Timothy E. Day as Blanky

Plot: A toaster, a lamp, a radio, a vacuum cleaner, and an electric blanket set out on a journey to find their original owner.

Tagline: Imagine if your toaster went on a journey of its own!

First Viewing: Preschool? Kindergarten?
Added to The List: Always been there.

So far in this Epic Grand Ranking Attempt, I have reviewed one crime drama, one fantasy, one family film, one comedy, and one animated feature. Film #6 is a combination of the last four. My apologies to those looking for animated crime thriller, but truly, The Brave Little Toaster is full enough without adding gang wars and drug smuggling.

Although most people consider The Brave Little Toaster to be a Disney movie (as they do with all animated movies), they are wrong, wrong, WRONG. “What!?” you say, “But my Video/DVD cases says it’s Disney!”

Sigh… This is kind of a long story, so get comfortable…

First of all, The Brave Little Toaster is based on a novella by Thomas M. Disch. Some time in the mid 80’s, it was adapted into the animated film we know and love today. In the summer of 1987, it debuted on the Disney Channel. The following January, Toaster was shown at the Sundance Film Festival, and was the first and only (until 2001’s Waking Life) animated film to be entered. It was considered for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize, nominated for the “Outstanding Animated Program” Emmy, and recognized with a Parents’ Choice Award. Despite all this hoopla, Toaster never had a nationwide theatrical release. Finally, sometime between July of 1988 and September of 1991, Disney acquired the rights to the film and distributed it on home video.

So, to make a long story short…someone else made The Brave Little Toaster, but Disney owns it.

It’s not your average origin story for a film, especially for an animated film. But you must remember, The Brave Little Toaster is not your average 80’s animated film. Drawn in an era of “animal movies” (The Secret of NIMH, An American Tale, Oliver & Company), this film sets itself aside and was the only one of its kind until Toy Story came along.

The film begins in a quaint little cottage in the middle of a forest. Five appliances (six, if you include the pessimistic Air Conditioner) are left to their own devices, and continually clean and take care of the cottage and await the day when their beloved Master (a ten-year-old boy) returns. But after years of waiting, the group is growing ever more edgy. When the cottage is put up for sale, the group decides to seek out their Master, certain that he still needs them. And so, the journey begins…

Basically, Toaster’s trek consists of four sections. The first one, the longest and most boring, takes place in the woods while our faithful friends first start traveling to The City. On the way, they encounter a group of dancing frogs, who enjoy making faces in Toaster’s reflection. Blanky is captured by mice. The whole sequence goes on for too long. Even Toaster gets bored.

Still, this sequence has one of the saddest, albeit unnecessary, moments in the history of animation. It’s even listed on Filmsite’s Greatest Tearjerker Films, Scenes, and Movie Moments of All-Time. Here’s the link. Anywho, Toaster is running from the narcissistic frogs and accidentally bumps into a yellow flower who immediately falls in love with its own likeness, unaware it’s just a reflection. Toaster explains this, but the flower will not be convinced otherwise. Toaster then leaves and looks back to see the flower withering and dying.

What’s the point of this scene? Countless times, I’ve seen this movie and still, I do not know. Is Thomas M. Disch saying something about technology’s relation to nature? Is this scene even in the book? Or did the animators think the story was lagging a little on the depressing storyline venue? As if being abandoned by the one person who loves them isn’t enough, now they have to break our hearts with this poor, wilting flower.

In many ways, The Brave Little Toaster is a very uneven film. First off, family friendly animation would have you believe that this is a sweet children’s story about finding your way home ala Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. And it is. But once you get into to it, you see that there’s more there than the colorful video cover would have you believe.

Besides having one of the saddest moments ever, it also has one of the most terrifying. While still in the “forest phase,” Toaster peacefully dreams of his happy days gone by with The Master, as he makes toasts and faces in his chrome. But suddenly, black smoke emits from Toasters slots. And a black hand grabs The Master away.

And then this scary firefighter clown shows up.

And then forks chase Toaster.

And then he’s hanging helplessly above a bathtub full of water.

Rest easy, my good readers, ‘tis only a dream. But still…what the fuck? How many kids started bawling after this sequence? How many turned off the VCR and never found out what happened to Toaster and his pals? And just what is the director trying to say here? Appliances have fears? And feelings? Pshaw! Nonsense!

Another scene worth noting in the forest phase (I told you it took up most of the movie!), concerns Toaster and Blanky. Lampy very plainly asks Toaster, “So, what’s this thing with you and the blanket?” From there, Toaster explains he feels he should be nice to Blanky from now on and that he gets a warm toasty feeling inside from being nice.

Many, to this day, consider this scene as some kind of rallying cry for homosexual appliances. With Toaster and Blanky both officially being male (a.k.a. being referred to as “he”), and supposing you had the mindset of a 5th grade boy, it could be taken this way. But I prefer to think Toaster and Blanky have more of a father/son relationship as opposed to a romantic one. (I mean, come on people, Blanky has got to be at least emotionally 6 years old!) It’s just another facet in this gem of a movie.

A little more than halfway through the movie, some serious shit starts happening to our group of weary travelers. They are rescued by Elmo St. Peters, a rotund appliance store owner who spends his free time creating his own electrical devices from the pieces of others. Our travelers seemed to be doomed to become one of Mr. St. Peters’ monsters, as explained in the song “B Movie Show” by his many innovations. But the group manages to outwit him and escape to The City.

Little does the group know as they make their way to The Master’s apartment, that he is recently graduated and towards college. And he needs a few cheap, old appliances. You know, the ones from the cottage. Oh, irony. If only they had waited a few more days, all this danger could easily be avoided. So The Master (now officially known as Rob) drives to the cottage and believes it’s been robbed.

At this same time, Toaster and the gang arrive at Rob’s apartment and are met by his newer, fancier appliances. Among them is a computer, even! Through song (“Cutting Edge) our friends slowly realize that The Master has no use for them anymore and silently head to Ernie’s Disposal.

Irony strikes again when Rob decides he wants old stuff to take to the dorm. So he ends up going to Ernie’s Disposal (advertised as “Crazy Ernie’s Amazing Emporium of Total Bargain Madness, by Toaster’s old friend, the T.V.) to look for just that.

While at “Crazy Ernie’s” our electrical friends accept their fate as scrap metal. Around them, old cars of all kinds sing their sob stories through the song “Worthless” as they are dropped on a conveyor belt and crushed into cubes. This is kind of like a precursor to Pixar’s Cars…but way more morbid.

Anywho, the scary magnet who collects these cars seems to have it in for Toaster and his pals and relentlessly chases them around the junkyard. All seems lost, but hark! Thy Master comes along, recognizes his appliances from childhood and collects them. Mr. Evil Magnet doesn’t like this one bit and dumps the Master on the Conveyor Belt of Doom along with some other junk that traps him and destines him for Cubesville.

Then the toaster, oh, that brave little toaster, selflessly throws himself into the gears of the cube maker, which saves his master’s life. And then somehow, Rob discovers what stopped the trash compactor. And that it was a toaster. And that it was his toaster from the cottage. Yeah…it’s all so realistic. But how else are we supposed to get to the happy ending?

So, Rob repairs Toaster, who still manages to make some damn fine toast, despite all those gears mangling his inside mechanisms. And all the appliances to college. And they all live happily ever after…until the sequels. DUN, DUN, DUN!

The Brave Little Toaster is, quite obviously, a prototype for Toy Story/Toy Story 2/Probably Toy Story 3, just by having inanimate objects come to life. As adults, it’s easy to look back fondly of playing with our toys. So, it’s just as easy to believe toys come to life in an animated feature, because they seemed so real back then. But how many of you played with your toaster? When was the last time you patted your desk lamp on the head? Or appreciated your vacuum? Creating sympathy for ordinary household objects is quite a feat, and this film manages to do it perfectly.

I’ve done you a disservice by not talking about the other characters, so I’ll do it now, as this blog comes to a much needed end. The characters are truly what drives the film. Each of them is likable in their own way…even the annoying, babyish blanket. Lampy, with is naïve optimism, is my favorite. And unlike the title would have you believe, each of the characters acts bravely and sacrifices something to be reunited with their master.

Favorite Screencap
A shot of Toaster just before he sacrifices himself for The Master.

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