Friday, July 23, 2010

Do Toasters Dream of Whole Wheat Sheep? - Thoughts on "The Brave Little Toaster"

Now, I don't say this often, but before we get into this, I want you to watch "The Brave Little Toaster" if you've never seen it before (or watch it again if it's been a while). Because this review/nostalgia-tinged ramble will contain vast galloping herds of unmarked spoilers. Also, afterwards, you should read the review of the movie from the wonderful Total Media Bridge website, as a lot of my feelings about the film are shared by Mr. Johnson and I want to avoid repeating them.


Ready? Okay clean up all those tear-sodden handkerchiefs, let's talk about this here movie.

In many ways, "The Brave Little Toaster" was the 80's kid's equivalent to "The Iron Giant". It's an offbeat animated film based loosely on a very offbeat book, and made with a sensibility that isn't quite anything like what we're used to from, say, Disney. (As a matter of fact, given the overall look and tone of "Toaster", I was a little surprised to not see Brad Bird anywhere in the credits.) It wound up in the hands of a big studio who was supposed to distribute it, but really had no clue what they had or what to do with it. Thankfully, somebody had the bright idea, "Well, let's just dump it on our cable TV station; it'll fill 90 minutes." Thus, more children saw this film on cable than would have ever seen it in a theater.

I was one of the kids who saw "Toaster" as a kid on The Disney Channel. This was back when it was a station you had to subscribe to, and it even had it's own magazine. One of my greatest-ever Nerd Regrets is not saving -or even
reading- the article about the making of "The Brave Little Toaster" (you'll learn why this is such a wallbanger in a couple of paragraphs). But I watched my clunky VHS tape recording of it over and over and over again. I practically have the whole thing memorized, so watching it again for the first time since... college? Maybe? Anyway, it was a weird, weird experience.

Right away, as a child, I could tell this one was different. From the opening credits, there's a darkness and an underlying sadness here that you simply did not see in animated films of the time. As much as I am an animation fan (and an Emo Pisces), there aren't that many animated moments that *really* make me cry*.

But "Toaster" sports one of the saddest ever:


 And mind you, in the context of the film,this scene comes out of rutting nowhere in the middle of a happy musical interlude. The fun stops suddenly, and without warning, we find ourselves in the middle of this tragic little story. As a child, it's scary and upsetting and you just don't have the vocabulary or experience to say why, exactly. You cry yourself to sleep over something you don't understand, and the scene haunts your memory forever. And the kicker: the scene is only a hair or two over one minute long. But something I never noticed before: it informs everything that happens in the movie afterward. 

 In the beginning of the film, the characters are all just out for themselves. They don't even appear to particularly like each other (this in itself was a huge deal for an animated movie of the time, where characters tended to be BFFs or rivals right from the start), and are along for the adventure just so that they can each be with their owner again. But then Toaster's cold, unfeeling appliance heart breaks over the plight of this lonely organic thing, and so she** starts being more affectionate towards Blanket (who, as a reminder, is a device designed to keep humans warm -- something he hasn't been able to do for at least five years). In turn, Blanket helps the whole gang, sacrificing his personal comfort to be a tent during a rainy night. Lampy (my personal favorite character as a kid; I just love his character design and animation) asks Toaster about this, and later rescues the whole gang in a last-ditch suicide mission. And so on. That right there is some brilliant writing. Who is it making us cry over these godless machines?



I consider "The Brave Little Toaster" to be the first feature film from Pixar. Joe Ranft's influence is all over it, and I'm on good authority that John Lasseter was working somewhere behind the scenes too (he originally intended for this to be the first-ever CGI animated film. Oh, the things that could have changed the course of film history.) The level of craft is superb. The animation, the invented movement, of each of the machines is very imaginative in a way that has become a well-loved Pixar hallmark.  

And unfortunately, this brings up the sad news. Disney owns the distribution rights to this film and they've always treated it as just a weird novelty. This is despite the fact that it deserves a good, cleaned-up DVD (really, if "The Lion King 2" gets a Special Edition, why the hell not "Brave Little Toaster"?) The picture and sound quality is no improvement on my twenty-year-old VHS. Debris litters the picture and the loud-quiet-loud effect of the soundtrack gets very irritating after a while (though it is nice that the film isn't pan-and-scanned). There is but one special feature, called "The making of the 'Brave Little Toaster' movies". And given the historical significance of this film, all it wants to talk about are the cash-grabbing sequels made, for some damn reason, in 2003. Still, the original "The Brave Little Toaster" is brilliant and deserves much better. 

 That said, I should note that this movie has, of late, been frequently cited as an official scapegoat for an entire generation's psychological problems. No, really. This movie is the reason why an entire generation can never throw anything away. Our machines have feelings, and they miss us when we do not use them. They'd feel horribly betrayed if we ever threw them away, even if they were broken or outmoded. I wish I could say I grew out of this weird sort of animism, but I haven't. And it hit me bad during the Great Basement Cleanout. 

 And then I found this Spike Jones Ikea commercial. And as much as "Brave Little Toaster" is one of my favorite childhood movies, I couldn't help but laugh:

By the way, if you like wonderful, beautiful, but very definitely melancholy animated films from the late '80s, you'll want to keep an eye on this blog next month... 

 * - Predictably, the list begins and ends with Seymour. 

** - Ah, yes, one of the great controversies about "The Brave Little Toaster". I won't get into it, but you can read about it at the lovely Cartoon Over-Analizations blog here and here.  


This has nothing to do with anything, but I'm posting it here because it was just announced and others may have missed it. And, lo, out of the ashes of M Night's folly, there rose "The Legend of Korra"... 


Painting of the... whatever span of time it ends up being between acrylic paintings! Still getting used to this medium. Here's some "Toaster" fanart! 

6.19.10 - "The Reason Why We Are Packrats" 

 Oh, if only I'd done this in time to submit it to the Crazy 4 Cult show


Jason said...

Wow! I never have ever seen this movie. But it really makes me want to. And the IKEA commercial is hilarious. It is weird, you really feel for the lamp, haha.

great post!

Zach said...

It wasn't the Brave Little Toaster that made me a packrat (and I am a packrat--just ask my poor wife), it was The Velvetine Rabbit. That book fucked me up, man.

I've really got to re-watch BLT. It's been so long, but I have very happy memories of it.

Trish said...

^ Jason, it'll be interesting to read the opinion of someone who hasn't seen this as a child. I wondered, as i watched it, if this is one of those movies you have to see at just the right age.

Zach - I am with you 100% there. That scene where the Rabbit is sitting all alone in the dump because the boy's parents thought he was infected with Scarlet fever germs is f***ing heartbreaking and terrifying -- but at least there's a happy ending!