This week marks the 30th anniversary of one of my favorite films, The Brave Little Toaster. This movie has a special place in my heart. It’s one of the first movies that I have memories of watching. Many who grew up in the 80s or 90s have “that” VHS tape that they watched countless times. The Brave Little Toaster is my worn out VHS. I must’ve been 5 or 6 years old when I first saw it. I remember loving the characters and the music. I was also absolutely terrified by some of the scarier scenes. Whether I was delighted or scared watching this film, I knew way back then that this film was something special. Before we get into my personal feelings about The Brave Little Toaster, let’s get some history on this game changing movie.
The Brave Little Toaster was directed by Jerry Rees. Rees had worked on The Fox and The Hound, and was also a special effects supervisor on Tron. In the early 80’s, Disney purchased the rights to the short novel The Brave Little Toaster. At the time, now Pixar executive John Lasseter (Toy Story) was experimenting with computer graphics and animation. He desired to make an entire animated film using only computers. He pitched doing this for The Brave Little Toaster to Disney. They promptly fired him. The film would be too expensive to make using computer graphics.
The development continued, with the animation being done in Taiwan to lower costs. Hyperion Pictures, a subsidiary of Disney, joined in to help produce. Jerry Rees was hired to direct. Rees was a fan of the Los Angeles based improv group The Groundlings. He cast several Groundlings members as the main characters. He emphasized that he wanted actual comedic voices, instead of doing overly “cartoony” voices. Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Tim Stack, and Deanna Oliver were all recruited from the improv group.
On July 10th 1987, The Brave Little Toaster premiered. The film was shown at the Los Angeles Animation Celebration, and the following year, was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. Rumor has it that although The Brave Little Toaster failed to win the Grand Jury Prize at the festival, many voters considered it the best film shown at the festival. Sundance was still relatively new, and the jury didn’t want to vote for an animated film, for fear of not being taken seriously. It failed to be distributed, and Disney reserved the right to premiere the film on the new Disney Channel on cable T.V. It gained more popularity after being distributed on VHS.
The film remains a beloved staple of many now adult lives. It sparked a new age of storytelling in animated films, and was without a doubt a precursor to Pixar’s ability to breathe life into the inanimate. The Brave Little Toaster is filled with great characters, music, and animation. The film starts off with its five characters suddenly realizing that their young boy “master” and his family might never be coming back. The objects are feeling rejected and a little worried for their master. The appliances set out on a cross country adventure to find their previous owner in the big city. Toaster (Deanna Oliver) is the defacto leader of the appliances. She (yes, she) is intelligent, yet conflicted about her role as the leader, and often questions herself. She becomes a compassionate and loving character during her story arc.
Needy, but useful, Blanky (Timothy E. Day) is the bleeding heart of the group. In the beginning, alienated by his fellow appliances, but ultimately gains their respect. Lampy (Tim Stack) is the dull yet sometimes brilliant sidekick of the group. He has one of the most important scenes in the movie, where he sacrifices himself by being struck by lightning in order to power the groups battery. That’s one aspect of this movie I love. Almost every character gives themselves selflessly to the group at one point or another.
Kirby (Thurl Ravenscroft), the grumpy vacuum cleaner, leaps off a cliff in order to rescue his friends. The Radio (Jon Lovitz) uses his antenna as navigation, and even saves everyone from quicksand with it. These moments of selflessness are such great character moments. Although there are also moments that could be described as some of the darkest scenes in animated film history. To appreciate The Brave Little Toaster, you have to be comfortable with the tonal shifts. There are scenes of levity and singing, followed by borderline suicide attempts and terrifying nightmares.The final act of sacrifice by Toaster is one of the most powerful scenes in animated film. She knowingly throws herself into the gears of the junkyard car compactor in order to save her master.
There are many other dark sequences in The Brave Littel Toaster. As a child, I could barely get through the clown dream sequence. It’s actually still pretty scary, and thinking about a similar scene being in an animated film today is almost laughable. I mean seriously. Look at this-
Let’s also not forget about the air-conditioner scene. Phil Hartman’s most disturbing performance. The air conditioner gets jealous of the other appliances because they are trying to leave. He’s “stuck in this stupid wall.” It’s accompanied by a frightening score by David Newman-
The themes of abandonment and worthlessness are heavily prevalent in The Brave Little Toaster. It definitely shares that same theme with Toy Story 3, which also has a 3rd act scene of the characters almost being disposed of. The Brave Little Toaster, however, has a genuinely happy ending. The Toaster gets repaired by the master, and the appliances all go off to college with him. It’s an ending that feels earned because the rest of the movie feels so hopeless and dark. It definitely made me feel new emotions when I watched this as a child. It’s probably why it still resonates with me. I grew up with this movie. It taught me what selfless love looks like.
I love all the individual characters. The Radio and Lampy are my favorite, probably because they provide most of the film’s laughs. As Radio, Jon Lovitz had just learned that he was joining SNL, and actually had to record all of his lines in one session before he left for New York. You can’t tell at all, since most of his line readings are spot on parodies of news announcers of the past. It’s little details like this that make The Brave Little Toaster so rewarding. Each character is fleshed out and has a distinct personality. Kirby is the selfish grump of the group that learns to love his fellow appliances. Blanky teams up with the Toaster to scare an “evil” Frankenstein-ish hardware store owner.
The songs in The Brave Little Toaster are deliciously 80s, but they honestly still hold up today. Especially “City of Light” and “It’s a B Movie.” The songs are spaced out nicely, and never feel shoehorned into the plot. They’re also really catchy. It shows what a Pixar musical animated film could possibly be like.
The original score by David Newman is one of my favorite film scores ever. It does a great job at conveying the perfect emotion at just the right time. The score is filled with melancholy, but the finale has one of the most uplifting end credit suites that I’ve ever heard. It’s absolutely gorgeous and rich with happiness. It gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.
In the end, the world should be happy that The Brave Little Toaster exists. Story-wise, it was a dark Pixar film before there was Pixar. The characters go through Hell in this movie. Every good moment leads to another perilous situation for the characters, which makes it all the more gratifying in the end when they succeed. The film teaches kids to never give up hope, even when all hope seems lost.
If it had been made with computer graphics like John Lasseter planed, we might have never even seen Toy Story. The rest of Pixar’s films could have also turned out very differently. It opened up a world of possibilities to the people who worked on it. It’s not the most perfect animated movie, but it’s definitely one of the most emotional, subtle, and heartfelt. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out. Happy 30th anniversary to this wonderful movie.