THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER
****/**** Image B- Sound B Extras C-
screenplay by Jerry Rees & Joe Ranft, based on the book by Thomas M. Disch
directed by Jerry Rees
THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER GOES TO MARS
**½/**** Image B Sound B Extras D
screenplay by Willard Carroll, based on the book by Thomas M. Disch
directed by Robert C. Ramirez
THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER TO THE RESCUE
*/**** Image B Sound B Extras D
screenplay by Willard Carroll
directed by Robert C. Ramirez
by Walter Chaw I'm most familiar with Thomas M. Disch for his sterling non-fiction work (The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of and The Castle of Indolence) and a few samplings of his less impressive genre short fiction, and though I was aware that he'd written a couple of children's books about a band of appliances, I'd never felt compelled to investigate. The first taste of Disch's novella The Brave Little Toaster, then, came to me by way of a feature-length animated adaptation from Disney that, a little like Babe: Pig in the City, probably caused enough consternation in the hearts and minds of studio PR to result in its relegation to a minor theatrical push with a botched advertising campaign. Here's a film, after all, that's as innovatively disturbed--as usefully frightening--as any of Uncle Walt's own vintage Merry Melodies and Silly Symphonies. In the whitewash of modern American children's entertainment via the Big Mouse, anything that isn't facile and patronizing is to be avoided and disdained.
Highly reminiscent of a Brian Aldiss story called "Who Can Replace a Man?" (a scene at the wrecking yard reminds of the Flesh Fair from A.I., Spielberg's adaptation of Aldiss's "Supertoys Last All Summer Long"), the question arises as to "why a toaster?" (the Aldiss story also features an orphaned machine described as "no bigger than a toaster")--the answer possibly having something to do with the familiarity with the mundane that informs the best fables. (Substituting tortoises and hares for toasters and vacuum cleaners only a natural progression as man becomes more divorced from the natural--with nature now assuming the role of direct antagonist to the story's machine heroes.) The new archetype's marriage to a lamp that talks like Peter Lorre and a genuinely demented, existentially tortured air conditioner that raves like Jack Nicholson opens new possibilities of conversation about how movie stars begin to speak in collective voices.
A song early in the journey about the role of Master (seen in the film as a bespectacled child) as creator of all things in the minds of the appliances speaks volumes to the ambition of the film to craft an allegory about religion and society, while a division of labours and the appearance of (gasp) meanness and imperfection in Toaster (his rebuke of Blanket is stinging) demonstrates a remarkable willingness to shade the film in ambiguity. The lessons The Brave Little Toaster teaches about identity, about behaviour and survival in a social environment, are earned through a true conflict, a sense of real imperilment that makes the film unusually amenable to an active analysis. The Brave Little Toaster is Blade Runner for children--in truth, there are too many disquieting moments to document, and as many avenues rich for deconstruction, not the least of which the degree to which Toy Story cribs an astonishing amount from The Brave Little Toaster, everything from its premise to the layout of set-pieces.
A chronicle at root of the fear of aging and obsolescence, The Brave Little Toaster concerns the efforts of a group of household appliances (lamp, AM radio, vacuum cleaner, electric blanket, and the titular toaster) as they embark upon a quest to find their missing "master." The images are unsettling, full of dreams of betrayal and destruction to rival the hallucinogenic nightmares from early Disney classics like Dumbo (complete with an evil clown and a hellmouth) and Pinocchio, without even mentioning the acid trip of the whole of Alice in Wonderland; the picture is remarkable for the lengths to which it goes to avoid condescending to its audience. A fantasia of Toaster beset upon by forks and dropped into a bathtub is preceded by its understanding of itself as only a reflection of anthropomorphic desire, and Blanket's initial embrace of a band of field mice nearly results in its consummation by the same. The Brave Little Toaster allows fantasies before cautioning against their indulgence. It is as canny an auto-commentator in its way about the usefulness of animation in the telling of fable as anything that I've seen, and a fabulous bit of science-fiction along the way about the march of time against the persistence of memory.
Based on Disch's own follow-up to The Brave Little Toaster, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars succumbs to the idea that sequels need to magnify their premise with new characters and overblown situations. Voice-casting Farrah Fawcett as a sink faucet, DeForest Kelley as an old space explorer, and Fyvush Finkel as a hearing aid stinks of the sort of cutesy in-joke of the genuinely desperate. Without the nuance and menace of the first film, the picture stands as a hollow Saturday morning knock-off, unable to lure Jon Lovitz back for a second round as AM Radio and doing the ol' talking rat and new baby thing that late-run sitcoms resort to when ideas run thin. Blanky snivels again, Toaster is optimistic again, and Ratso wants to go to Florida on a bus after snarling, sigh, "I'm walkin' here." Still, once the appliances get to Mars, issues of machinery being built to break raise some of the same thorny existential quandaries as the first film does. Not an unqualified success, hamstrung as it is by the requirements of continuity, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars nevertheless has a definite spark of the subversive that, by itself, earns it a recommendation.
The third instalment, The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue, picks up exactly where the first film leaves off, with the Master off to college with his extremely sexualized girlfriend and a trunk full of anthropomorphic junk crammed into his red convertible. Because the brilliance and economy of the The Brave Little Toaster is abhorrent to most modern children's entertainment, the picture is set in a veterinary hospital populated by cutesy animals, including a Mexican Chihuahua who appears to be capitalizing on a briefly popular Taco Bell marketing campaign. The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue is dated in a way that the original isn't, in other words, with the songs (not by Van Dyke Parks this time around--and it shows) varying shades of expository dreadful and overlong besides. Without the distraction of subtext, the animation reveals itself to be simplistic and a little drab, but that fatal thing that separates the sequels from the first is the idea that the Master, rather than an idealized deity (with obsessive-compulsive disorder) for the appliances, is in actuality some kind of saint.
The Brave Little Toaster finds itself on DVD in a serviceable fullscreen transfer from a worn negative. Specks and flaws are predominate while the colours are washed-out and dull--a shame, since I remember the picture having vibrancy when it came out. The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is clear and loud but far from revelatory--it seems that The Brave Little Toaster's underestimation continues apace. A short making-of doc is really more a look at the making of the film's two direct-to-video sequels; the only thing of mild interest is a quick interview with the late DeForest Kelley, who provided a voice for the immediate follow-up The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars. The disc opens with skippable previews for The Lion King: Special Edition, Sleeping Beauty: Special Edition, Brother Bear, Piglet's Big Movie, Stitch! The Movie, and Finding Nemo.
Released concurrently on DVD by Disney, the latter two parts of the trilogy--made expressly for the home-video market a decade after the original's theatrical release (and subsequent growing cult popularity)--look cleaner, if no better than a mid-level television cartoon. Saturation is vivid and the source prints are free of distracting flaws in their 1.33:1 fullscreen transfers. The DD 5.1 audio is underutilized but fine, and special features on each, besides the full barrage of trailers ported to each of the second discs from the first, are short storyboard comparisons that offer neither commentary nor edification beyond the uninspiring knowledge that rough drafts are less polished than final drafts. Originally published: December 11, 2003.