My relationship with Pixar has evolved into a strange, love and neglect one over the years. I grew up watching a lot of Disney films and once Pixar shook up the animation market in the mid ‘90s, I was always quick and willing to watch whatever they put out too. However, after The Incredibles was released in 2004, I just wasn’t feeling the love for Pixar anymore. It’s not that I thought The Incredibles was a bad film or anything (I love it); it’s just that my love and attention shifted from animated films to horror and sci-fi films. I was a complete wimp as a wee lad and was too scared to watch a lot of horror films, so I devoted most of my teenage years to getting caught up and watching as many horror classics and non-classics as I could. I’d say that I neglected Pixar for at least a number of years and didn’t watch films like Up (2009) and Wall-E (2008) until several years after they were initially released. When I finally did watch them, I felt ashamed for not doing so earlier. Up and Wall-E are right up there with the Toy Story series and The Incredibles (2004) as some of the best work Pixar has put out. I’ve fallen back into my old ways a bit though, because I have yet to watch Inside Out (2015) and Finding Dory (2016), but don’t judge me!
Anyhow, that digression aside, there’s no denying the impact Pixar has had on the film industry. CGI animation became a mainstay in film industry after the success of their early films such as Toy Story (1995) and A Bug’s Life (1998). Ever since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) added the award category for Best Animated Feature in 2001, Pixar has been dominant too. They’ve won in the category almost every year since its inception and they’ve have had a stellar track record in general for over 20 years now. However, there’s one bizarre, yet awesome animated film that turns 30 this year that laid the groundwork for some of Pixar’s best work. That film is none other than The Brave Little Toaster, the best thing since sliced bread, or toast I should say?
Adapted from the novel The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances by author Thomas M. Disch, the film follows a group of dated appliances —a toaster (Deanna Oliver), a lamp (Timothy Stack), an electric blanket (Timothy E. Day), a radio (Jon Lovitz) and a vacuum cleaner (Thurl Ravenscroft) in a world where appliances and electronics are sentient. The group embarks on a harrowing and emotional journey to find their master after years of separation.
What makes The Brave Little Toaster stand out from a lot of animated films, especially ones released at the time, is its concept. The idea of everyday objects being sentient, primarily in the absence of the people who own them is unusual, yet quite imaginative and unique as well. It’s also the kind of concept that can really only work in animated form, and it does thanks to a strong script, a strong voice cast and strong direction. Since these appliances are alive like their human counterparts, you feel attached to them and really care about them. Each appliance has a distinct personality too. The Toaster is the fearless leader, Lampy is the wiseass, Blanky is the innocent, sensitive type, the Radio is the comic relief, and Kirby is the grumpy, uptight type. Despite their differences and the conflict that often arises between them, they all see the master (a guy named Rob) as a divine figure and feel like he’s the one that gives their existence actual meaning. It relates back to life because we’re all trying to find meaning in our lives whether it’s through god and religion or something that’s not divine or religious. It’s a complex idea to incorporate into a film intended for kids, but it’s done well and is all part of the appeal. This core idea is also present in Toy Story and was satirized brilliantly by Seth Rogen and crew last year in the raunchy adult animated film Sausage Party (2016).
Additionally, The Brave Little Toaster stands out because of its darker, more depressing themes. The film deals with age, the sense of abandonment that comes with it and the desire to be unconditionally loved by someone. The group of appliances are all dated and come from an earlier time in the master’s life. Once they reach the city where their master lives, it becomes apparent to them that they’re obsolete and potentially worthless because of the newer, more advanced appliances that are readily available. An air conditioner (Phil Hartman doing a great Jack Nicholson impersonation) in the cabin where the appliances live in particular feels a sense of abandonment and sadly, he loses it. The scenes in the appliance parts store and the junkyard also show the likely, depressing fate that these appliances face. That existential dread is something you don’t typically see in a film intended for kids, but again, it’s part of the appeal and the reason why this film has held up so well and resonates with adults too.
Lastly, The Brave Little Toaster stands out because of the groundwork it laid for later Pixar films. John Lassester, the director of Toy Story and A Bug’s Life actually worked with the animation department on The Brave Little Toaster and was instrumental in getting the film made. His friend and colleague Jerry Rees even directed and co-wrote The Brave Little Toaster. Although Hyperion Animation produced the film, it ended up falling in Disney’s hands after struggles to find a distributor. Lassester’s relationship with Disney also became sour because of his attempt to push computer animation at the time, which resulted in his termination from the company. The silver lining is that it gave Lassester more creative freedom to do what he wanted later on at Pixar, and the rest is history. Also, as I previously mentioned, the film’s core concept of everyday, non-sentient objects coming to life and going on a journey was essentially reworked for Toy Story. Toy Story also has similar themes and characters as The Brave Little Toaster. The parallel between Sid and Elmo St. Peters has become more apparent over the years too.
Although The Brave Little Toaster is dark, bizarre and even horrifying at times (that nightmare sequence with the clown in particular), it does manage to maintain that glimmer of optimism that should be there in a film that’s intended for kids. The music by David Newman is wonderful and even moving at times. The songs by Van Dyke Parks are great too, and the animated sequences used to go along with the songs are all visually stunning and creative. The Brave Little Toaster was one of my favorite films growing up as a wee lad, and I have to say it’s gotten even better with age. The darker themes stick out more when viewing it with an older set of eyes, and that’s the genius of it. It’s great when films can take on a different meaning as you age. A remake is on the horizon given the current trend, but it’ll be a challenge for it to match the original in terms of quality (if it’s indeed happening that is). So, if you happen to own this film on DVD (or VHS like me), then give it another watch. If you have kids, then watch it with them, but disregard the two direct to video sequels that Disney put out in the 90’s.