Feb 25, 2008

The Brave Little Toaster (1987): A

Among the finest animated films Disney never made (but would like you to think they did), The Brave Little Toaster employs aesthetic simplicity to deliver an emotional wallop in its evocation of transformative childhood experiences—the dark, often unwanted discoveries that pave the way to a more enlightened adulthood. First made popular in Thomas M. Disch’s 1980 novel of the same name, the film presents its story of five common appliances—a toaster, an electric blanket, a vacuum cleaner, a lamp, and a radio—much like the intended bedtime narrative of its literary predecessor, at once fable-esque and genuinely hip. A lesser film might have smothered the beautiful stretches of scenery with some needless third-person voiceover, but Jerry Rees’ is one intimately reliant on often provocative, even disturbing imagery. When the five animated appliances decide to up and leave their abandoned cottage to search for their “master”—a young boy now grown and long departed from the summer home where our electrical protagonists now reside—one of their first discoveries is that of the surrounding wildlife, and in a life-impacting sequence, the toaster discovers a lone flower in the darkness of the wood. Unaccustomed to the mirror image before it, the flower relishes companionship before the toaster flees in fear, the lowly plant wilting soon thereafter in response to its now-assured solitude.

In many such ways does the film embitter its audience to the unfairness of the world, primarily for those who go about it with the best of intentions. Toaster’s titular qualities are relished most meaningfully in a decisive act of self-sacrifice, in a set piece pitting the appliances against what can be called the film's Great Satan, a literal hellmouth (a garbage dump trash compactor) that mercilessly destroys used cars and any other items deemed worthless by their former owners. The jazzy tune that accompanies said sequence plays both smoothly and deeply, the decrepit vehicles reminiscing days past with lyrics that shame nearly any production by the post-1960 Mouse House for pure existential weight (says a hearse, of all things: “I beg your pardon, it's quite hard enough / Just living with the stuff I have learned”).

This emotionally direct approach finds an appropriate outlet in the spare, bold animation style, though it is a choice that renders some of the dream sequences almost unintentionally hilarious in their surrealism. Such simplicity is a virtue Disney would only incidentally stumble upon some time later with their similarly excellent Lilo & Stitch, in which they deliberately held back on animation detail in response to diminishing box office returns for hand-drawn fare. Perhaps most affecting here, though, is the strong voice work, a key selling point when it comes to any successful case of anthropomorphization (see also Toy Story and Aqua Teen Hunger Force). The barely-exposed Deanna Oliver strikes a perfect line of gender ambiguity for the titular hero, while a pre-SNL Jon Lovitz lays out the groundwork for his Critic star Jay Sherman as a loudmouth, Roosevelt-obsessed (both Teddy and Franklin) clock radio. Ditto excellence for the rest of the cast (including Thurl Ravenscroft, best known as Frosted Flakes’ advertising icon Tony the Tiger), who render their characters as miniaturized archetypes working their way through the world. One can only imagine what would have been the case had the film’s initially proposed Disney production gone ahead, it’s $18 million budget slashed to just over $2 million when it was eventually outsourced to an independent company. Though a big hit at the 1988 Sundance Festival, the film was left distributor-less until Disney again picked it up for cable rights and a strong VHS release. Sporting only a brief run at New York’s Film Forum and other limited theatrical exposures, The Brave Little Toaster remains among the most criminally ignored works of the past twenty years. Though owner of distribution rights and responsible for two lesser sequels, when it comes to nostalgic childhood ruminations, Disney can’t touch this.


  1. They don't make em' like they used to... Of course an interesting sidenote on the simplistic animation, John Lasseter wanted to make this film with all CG backgrounds. Of course Disney ditched the project and fired Lasseter for making some preproduction calls before properly pitching the movie. "Toaster" is a better movie for not being Disney produced, and Lasseter is now the chief creative for Disney animation and park attractions. That's karma if I've ever seen it.

  2. Anonymous8:15 PM

    Yes! I love it when you write about animation, given it's my favorite medium. "Toaster" was one of those childhood favorites of mine, causing my sister and I to teach our toys how to survive in the dump when we would eventually tire of them. I think a similar film, that in my opinion is a little better, is the 1977 animated film "The Mouse and His Child". It can pretty much be found only on youtube where it's posted in its entirety. I envy everyone who has had the opportunity to experience it in their childhood.

  3. Anonymous3:25 AM

    This movie is absolutely better off for being made out of Disney's reach. It would have been sanitized, cutified, and drained of the beautiful sadness of scenes like "Worthless" and the flower in the woods.

    When I first saw "Toaster" when I was 11, I could tell it was something special. Here was a movie that was clearly a children's story, but that wasn't afraid to descend into emotional darkness, even abject despair, on its way to the other side.

    You're absolutely right that the film is about the truly difficult realizations that lie along the road to maturity, and every time I hear a critic describe it as "cute," "lighthearted," or "fun," I can't help but feel that they've missed the point a little bit.

  4. Gsmith! You rock! I've been wracking my brains for at least a decade and a half, trying to remember 'A Mouse and His Child!' Oh, thank you for mentioning it! Nobody I talk to has the slightest recollection of this movie.

  5. Anonymous5:08 AM

    Here you go Jesse :) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OWdw1IwdYY