Friday, 21 January 2011

The Brave Little Toaster

35. The Brave Little Toaster (1987)
Dir: Jerry Rees


Once upon a time, two Disney animation employees had the idea of making an animated film using computer generated 3D backgrounds. They took their idea to two high-level Disney executives who dismissed the idea on the grounds that it would be too costly. The executives felt so strongly about this that a few minutes after the meeting they informed one of the employees that his job had been terminated. That man was John Lasseter and that movie was 'The Brave Little Toaster'.

Although this story immediately provokes a feeling of outrage, animation fans like myself have a lot to thank Disney for. Their termination of Lasseter allowed him to pursue his interest in computer animation by setting up Pixar, a company who would eventually go on to make some of the greatest animated films of all time and put Disney's contemporary output completely in the shade. Their rejection of 'The Brave Little Toaster' also meant that it was taken instead to the independent Hyperion Pictures and made into an infinitely more charming, energetic and original production than would have been produced under Disney.

I should say at this point that I am a HUGE Disney fan and you can expect to see many of the studios groundbreaking animated films appearing in future posts on this blog. However, during the 80s Disney was going through something of a creative slump, producing lacklustre efforts like 'The Fox and the Hound' (1981) and 'Oliver and Company' (1988), and they were being significantly outperformed commercially and critically by independent productions, chiefly the superb early work of Don Bluth ('The Secret of NIMH' (1982), 'An American Tail' (1986)). Not until 1989 would Disney pull itself out of this rut, with a renaissance that began with 'The Little Mermaid' (1989) and peaked with the realease of one of the studios most beloved classics, the breathtaking 'The Lion King' (1994). But given the so-so drear that constitutes most of Disney's 80s output, I am forever grateful that the cult classic 'The Brave Little Toaster' was taken out of their hands.

'The Brave Little Toaster' is an indie film in the truest sense, produced against the odds but with a creative freedom that would doubtless have been reduced by studio interference. Disney backed the film by purchasing the television and video rights and Hyperion managed to gain further backing from a couple of other investors but the film went into production with a budget of only $2.3 million, compared to an average of $24 for Disney animated features of the time and about $12 million for Don Bluth films. Consequently, the animation has a cheap TV look to it but this is rendered entirely superfluous by the ample charm, energy and wit that characterises everything about 'The Brave Little Toaster'.

Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas M. Disch, 'The Brave Little Toaster' follows the adventures of five outdated appliances who have been abandoned by their "master" in his family's former home, a country cabin. Sick of waiting in false hope for his return, the appliances decide to set out on a journey to the city to track their master down. It sounds like a fairly standard, kiddy film concept but 'The Brave Little Toaster' actually turns out to have dark, melancholy atmosphere constantly bristling beneath its brightly rendered surface. This is reflected in composer David Newman's extraordinary score which is unlike the score for any other animated film I've ever seen and a perfect fit for the atmosphere director and screenwriter Jerry Rees has gone for. From the opening moments, a bleak, grey dusk with the subtlest of musical accompaniments, Newman's music works on the viewer's emotions without them even noticing.

With the music setting the tone, 'The Brave Little Toaster' takes its time to set up its plot. We spend a good twenty minutes plus in the abandoned cabin, during which Rees and his animators makes us fully appreciate the genuine sadness and desperation of the abandoned appliances' plight. They keep the house clean and in order as they await the master's return, racing to the window at the sound of any car. This has clearly been going on for a long time and all but the most naive of the gang, a child-like electric blanket (voiced by 8 year old Timothy E. Day), have begun to face up to reality. This point is underlined by one of the most famously dark moments in the film, the explosion of a paranoid air conditioner (Phil Hartman). This remarkable opening sequence encapsulates 'The Brave Little Toaster's prioritising of mood over flash and helps us get to know the characters intimately before the film's main quest kicks in.

A major asset to 'The Brave Little Toaster' is the voice cast, many of whom were plucked from LA comedy improv group The Groundlings. Jon Lovitz claims the bulk of the voice work as a blabbermouth radio, Tim Stack is wonderfully perky yet snarky as a dim but enthusiastic lamp, Deanna Oliver has the right amount of cheery pluck as the titular toaster and Thurl Ravenscroft, as grumpy vacuum cleaner Kirby, is suitably gruff and will be instantly recognisable to millions of kids from my generation as the voice of Tony the Tiger, mascot of cornflakes-but-better cereal Frosties. Also notable in a couple of cameo roles is the late, great Phil Hartman. Familiar to millions as the voice of Troy McClure/Lionel Hutz in 'The Simpsons', Hartman had such a brilliant voice that he usually just used it without embellishment for all his voiceover work (no-one ever complained but Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure have virtually identical voices and remember Lyle Lanley, the man who sold Springfield a monorail... well, enough said). However, here he is heard impersonating two film stars, providing the air conditioner with Jack Nicholson's voice and turning a hanging lamp into Peter Lorre (the latter is also drawn to resemble Lorre). Having a group of comedians as your cast is inevitably going to throw up some great moments, and Tim Stack claims the best of these with his improvised final line "I'm aching from joy"! It's a line which both encapsulates the experience of watching 'The Brave Little Toaster' while also giving a sly nudge to the audience.

Having established its somewhat dark mood, 'The Brave Little Toaster' never slips into perky condescension and continues to include frequent moments of peril, emotional distress and downright disturbing, even frightening, occurences. Most famous among these is a nightmare sequence in which the Toaster is confronted by a psychotic fireman clown who leans as close to the camera as he can possibly get and quietly whispers the word "run". People still talk about this moment to this day and it truly does send a shiver up your spine. It's the sort of thing that never would have made it into a Disney production and, indeed, was nearly cut out of the film at the behest of producer Donald Kushner, along with the other legendarily dark musical number 'Worthless'. Given that these have become key moments in building the cult following of 'The Brave Little Toaster', it's a relief that Kushner's requests were ultimately ignored.

I'm becoming aware at this point that I may have made 'The Brave Little Toaster' sound like a bit of a downer. It's not at all. The melancholy and peril is more than balanced out by the cheeriness and originality of its comedy, the brightness and inventiveness of its visuals and the sweetness of its message. The opening cabin sequence, for instance, is lifted by a house-cleaning routine set to Little Richard's 'Tutti Frutti'. The relationships between the appliances during their journey, while emotionally complex and peppered with frequent outbursts and jibes, are developed into a strong bond of friendship characterised by acts of self-sacrifice. The design of the characters is also a delight. While most of the appliances are shown with faces, the designs are varied so that sometimes simple anthropomorphisation is not settled for. The Radio, for instance, is drawn without human features and instead communicates through the voice of a typically corny DJ. Similarly, the Television, when not in use by humans, is depicted as a man on a screen who can converse with the outside world.

'The Brave Little Toaster's musical numbers are a mixed bag. The four original songs written by Van Dyke Parks include only one cheery number, with the three others being very dark indeed. Two of them, 'B-Movie Show' and 'Cutting Edge', are not very good and rely on strong visual sequences to carry them. 'B-Movie Show' is sung by a creepy gang of appliances driven to madness by a parts shop owner who strips and sells their mechanisms (the scene includes the "gutting" of a blender) while 'Cutting Edge' is sung by a jealous band of up-to-the-minute (for 1987) technological appliances who terrorize our heroes. Both sequences are great, despite the weak songs ('Cutting Edge' is particularly headache inducing with its bleeps and bloops) but it is the third dark effort which is truly unforgettable. 'Worthless' takes place at a junk yard where a group of depressed, burnt-out cars reminisce about their former glories prior to being crushed to death one by one. In this case, the brilliance of the scene is matched by a superb song.

The fourth song is the only upbeat number, the film's recurring theme 'City of Light'. The one song sung primarily by the leading cast, 'City of Light' will charm all but the hardest of hearts. It's a lovely, hopeful song and I'm not ashamed to admit that this sequence brings a little tear to my eye or that I often go back and watch it again when the film ends. In a film characterised by its light and shade, its the most truly heart-swelling, joyous part.

Upon its initial release, 'The Brave Little Toaster' became a huge hit at the Sundance Film Festival. Audiences and judges alike loved it and it garnered a nomination for the Grand Jury prize, the festival's top honour. The award ultimately went to the largely forgotten 'Heat and Sunlight' (1987) but, according to Jerry Rees, he was taken aside by some of the Sundance organisers and told that his film was the best thing at the festival but they felt they couldn't give the prize to an animated movie because this would lead to Sundance not being taken seriously. This frustrating, narrow-minded attitude towards animation has been a staple of the movie industry ever since Walt Disney's incredible 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves' (1937) was denied a Best Picture Oscar nomination on the same grounds, the Academy instead fobbing Disney off with a gimmicky special Oscar with seven miniature Oscars attached. After the Sundance blow, 'The Brave Little Toaster' suffered another setback when Disney exercised its distribution rights by pulling the film from theatrical release and premiering it on their new cable channel instead. Without a proper cinematic run, the reputation that 'The Brave Little Toaster' had built up dissolved and the film fell into obscurity, quietly building up a cult following over the years through video rentals and TV showings.

'The Brave Little Toaster' is a film that transcends its modest budget to lodge itself in the viewers' hearts and minds. It certainly never left John Lasseter's head and proved to be a major influence on the classic 'Toy Story' series (1995-2010), with 'Toy Story 3' particularly betraying a strong influence. Though many have a nostalgic attachment to it (myself included. I remember first seeing it one Easter when my Grandad was visiting and still associate it with that youthful buzz of holiday excitement), 'The Brave Little Toaster' is one of those rare 80s cartoons that is exactly as good as, if not better than, you remembered thanks to its refusal to talk down to children and its multiple age-range appeal. Whatever age you happen to be, it's not too late to discover this remarkable film for the first time. Having just recently revisited it on DVD for the first time in several years, I can honestly say "I'm aching from joy"!

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