Directed by Jerry Rees
Written by Jerry Rees and Joe Ranft
Starring Deanna Oliver, Jon Lovitz, Thurl Ravenscroft
Originality is so rare these days that we latch onto anything that doesn’t smell of being laughably, obviously derivative. Of course, when I say “we,” I mean film buffs because there’s no denying that the latest Transformers film, the third film in a franchise of movies based on a line of toys that inspired a 1980s-era cartoon, is nowhere near original yet made an insane amount of money at the worldwide box office. So not everyone craves originality all of the time. But even the masses crave it enough that when a movie comes along that presents something unique, whether it’s a story, a character, or a new world, we salivate over it like a dog in front of a steak.
And so it is with many people and Pixar Animation Studios. I will gladly admit to being at the front of the drooling legion of fans of this groundbreaking company. The success of Pixar over the past two decades has been enormously satisfying to behold, not only because I, like many of you, grew up along with the studio. No, part of the satisfaction has been in knowing that, for once, mainstream filmmakers were able to create art that just happened to make a load of cash. Of course, Pixar hasn’t been perfect; I need only point to the misbegotten but profitable Cars series of films to prove that even John Lasseter is fallible. But it’s hard to deny the company’s ambition, as well as their ability to let that ambition fuel wildly entertaining stories.
Every studio, every artist, every creative mind has to start somewhere. Most people know that people like Lasseter and the late Joe Ranft (best known as the voice of Heimlich from A Bug’s Life) toiled away for years, originating in the Walt Disney Feature Animation department. But what most may not realize is that Lasseter and especially Ranft had a moment in the sun well before the glory days that started with 1995’s Toy Story. Even I, a proud Pixar acolyte, wasn’t fully aware of how much these men were involved in the making of the 1987 independently animated, Disney-distributed The Brave Little Toaster.
I assume—though I can’t say for sure, of course—that the film has something of a cult following. When I mentioned on the Filmspotting Forum last week that I’d be reviewing this film for the show with co-host Michael Ryan, there was an outpouring of “Awesome!” or “That movie’s the best!” and posts along those lines. As I mentioned on the show, I have only a few faint recollections of watching the movie, but it did not surprise me at all to learn that, while Walt Disney Pictures didn’t distribute the film in theaters in 1987, the film was played ad nauseam on The Disney Channel in the early 1990s. Maybe I’m imagining the way the network would advertise this movie, or maybe I’m just a big fan of Little Richard without really knowing it, but the only scene of which I had a clear memory was with the main characters—appliances—cleaning up a house while “Tutti Frutti” plays on a radio.
This image—of a radio, vacuum cleaner, blanket, lamp, and toaster happily tidying up a cabin—is at odds with the story of The Brave Little Toaster, which has some abrupt tonal shifts but is, at heart, a sad story about abandonment and the inherent loneliness of such a situation. These five appliances have little in common with each other. Frankly, they only have one thing in common with each other: they all belong to the same owner, who they call “The Master,” as if they’re referring to the leader of a cult. Their devotion to this Master is intense, even though a picture shows us that the Master is a bespectacled little boy. Their fanaticism is even more surprising, considering the fact that the cabin where they live—and where the Master used to live—is otherwise desolate. They’ve been alone for what must have been many years, waiting for him to return, so they may be properly used and enjoyed once again. One day, when they see a real estate agent put a “For Sale” sign in front of the cabin, they band together to go to the city, where the Master now lives, to return to his care.
If you haven’t seen The Brave Little Toaster, but you’re a big Pixar fan, you probably read that synopsis and wondered if it’s you. No, it’s not you, reader: there is more than a light connection between this film and the Toy Story franchise. The parallels are inescapable, from the long opening scene to the climax, which is set at a junkyard. (Yes. A junkyard.) The lamp, unimaginatively named Lampy, is designed similar to Luxo, the lamp in the Pixar Animation Studios logo. The five characters have similar traits to the toys. They, just like the toys and Andy, are slavish to their Master, who turns out to be Rob, a teenager heading off to college. They travel through the city, as impossible as it may seem. They come up against other appliances who are jealous of their place in Rob’s life. Oh, and by the way, the movie climaxes at a junkyard, just like Toy Story 3.
Michael mentioned this on the show, and I had the same trouble: yes, on the one hand, The Brave Little Toaster came first. It was released in July of 1987 and played at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival. The first Toy Story film opened in 1995. The third one was released in 2010. If anything, the Toy Story films could be called—and it’s a very shaky argument, mind you—rip-offs, even if John Lasseter and Joe Ranft were involved in both. But on the other hand, I kept wondering how the hell this movie had managed to take plotlines from the Toy Story trilogy. Even ignoring that, this much is clear: what Toy Story and its sequels get right, The Brave Little Toaster gets wrong.
See, the foundation for this movie is simple: the appliances will do anything for Rob, and Rob will do anything for them. Or, if you like, the appliances are as devoted to Rob, as he is to them. And that’s not even close to reality. Lots of outrageous and unlikely things happen in the Toy Story trilogy, but the root of those stories is simple: a boy and his toys. Any person, male or female, grows up with toys of some kind and gets an emotional attachment to them. It’s a universal idea that we personalize our toys, that we make one a hero, one a villain, one a coward, one a damsel in distress, and so on. I strongly question, however, the idea that we personalize our appliances.
Could it be argued that some appliances are more masculine or feminine than others? Absolutely. Could it be argued that if you used an appliance long enough and often enough, it could—in the realm of a fantasy—get attached to you in an inexplicable yet very deep way? Absolutely. Could it be argued that I like to answer my own questions? Guilty as charged. But I would very strongly argue against the notion that a person gets as close to appliances as it does to toys. Even as children, we use appliances but we don’t play with them. Who plays with a toaster? Rather, what child who isn’t being seen twice weekly by a psychiatrist plays with a toaster? This is the fundamental flaw with The Brave Little Toaster, and the fact that I still like this movie, and that I would still recommend you check it out again is testament to its atmosphere and general watchability.
The characters aren’t that remarkable, but having a couple of Saturday Night Live alums, Jon Lovitz and the late Phil Hartman, among the cast helps out quite a lot. Lovitz, as the radio, gets most of the hammy comic relief, but even 25 years ago, he could sell the weakest of jokes. Hartman has two smaller roles, as an overheating air conditioner and a Peter Lorre-esque lamp, but he makes a solid impression as two of the creepier appliances you’ll stumble across. The other vocal performances are mostly forgettable, but Thurl Ravenscroft—a textbook case of “You’d know the voice if you heard it”—does a good job with a mostly thankless character, Kirby, the extremely grumpy vacuum cleaner.
What works here is the foreboding atmosphere and the deeper story. Once you forget that the main characters are appliances that have a bond with a little boy, The Brave Little Toaster is a somewhat dark but enjoyable film to watch. The problem is simple: to enjoy this movie, you have to ignore its overall concept. There’s nothing perfect about this film; as a child, I enjoyed it for that opening scene, and was appropriately disturbed by some of the darker elements. As an adult, I watch The Brave Little Toaster and see the seeds for Pixar Animation Studios. Mistakes, problems, issues, whatever you want to call them: the problems are evident here, but it’s, as Michael said on the show, a surprisingly fertile testing ground for the greatness Pixar would deliver us in the 1990s and onward.
– Josh Spiegel