We have a (necessary) habit of looking past many of the traumatic moments of our childhood. We learn our lessons but our mind has the common sense to not let us dwell on the things we found most terrifying or emotionally scarring. My mind must have been especially scarred by 1987’s children cult classic, The Brave Little Toaster, because when I popped it in my DVD player today, I remembered very little of the film (which I hadn’t seen since the early years of elementary school) other than thinking that I thought it was a good movie. It is… but it’s also one of the darkest and most terrifying children’s movies this side of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. With an on-screen suicide, evil demon firefighter clowns, and countless deaths of ancillary characters, The Brave Little Toaster was a quick reminder that many of my favorite older children’s movies used to downright horrifying.
On its surface, Brave Little Toaster is just another children’s fantasy involving talking and adventurous inanimate objects, and in fact, it is now painfully obvious that a significant portion of Toy Story 3‘s plot was “borrowed” from Brave Little Toaster. However, beneath the shallow observations of a film about common household appliances going on a grand adventure to find their master is a surprisingly prescient meditation on loneliness, abandonment, and becoming obsolete. Since several future members of Pixar were involved in the film’s creation, it’s thematic maturity shouldn’t be all that shocking. I lost track of the number of times in the film that my sister and I broke out in uncontrollable “awwws” because something especially heartbreaking had just happened, and that’s not even getting into all of the pure nightmare fuel that The Brave Little Toaster is built on.
After being abandoned for ten years by their former master (who is now about to leave for college), five talking appliances in an abandoned cottage pass the day away desperately hoping for the return of their Master. Led by the moral leader of Toaster (Deanna Oliver), the group of the childlike Blanky (Timothy Day), Kirby the vacuum (Thurl Ravenscroft), Lampy (Tim Stack), and Radio (Jon Lovitz) wile away a meaningless existence in isolation, all knowing that their Master will never return but praying that he will. After discovering that the cabin is for sale and witnessing their air conditioner (Phil Hartman) intentionally kill himself, the group goes on a quest to find the Master, but crossing a dangerous forest and run-ins with a maniacal appliance shop means that their grand journey will be more dangerous than they anticipated.
I can’t emphasize enough just how scarring this film is. It’s the only children’s film I can think of where a character commits suicide (it wasn’t just the air conditioner either. One of the cars in the infamous junkyard scene intentionally drives on to the conveyor belt where he’s crushed into a cube). There’s a scene (with Phil Hartman playing another character with a spot on Peter Lorre impersonation) in an appliance shop from Hell where appliances who have been driven mad by witnessing their peers turned into scraps sing a macabre musical number full of terrifying imagery. Toaster has a nightmare with the above demon clown firefighter that morphs into a smoke monster that whisks his Master away. The junkyard scene has cars who are being compacted sing about how pathetic and worthless their lives have become. The Brave Little Toaster is probably much more emotional and disturbing for the adults who actually grasp what is happening. The children will most likely just be scared by the more frightening images.
There were two (semi) big names in the voice cast, and unsurprisingly, Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman stole the show. Jon Lovitz’s Radio provided the film with many of its best comic moments, and his rendition of old 50s/60s style radio broadcasters was great (and the writing peppered his rapid yammering with enough pop-culture in-jokes to please the grown-ups in the audience including an especially clever North by Norhtwest reference). However, it was Phil Hartman in his two roles that was the most impressive. Who knew that Phil Hartman was such a great impressionist (well I’m guessing anyone who watched Saturday Night Live in the late 80s and early 90s). The air conditioner was an obvious Jack Nicholson impersonation and the hanging crazy lamp was an obvious Peter Lorre (Casablanca). For the older people watching the film, it was a good nod to the adults watching it with their kids (or grown-up now and watching it for nostalgia’s sake).
I’m always shocked to find just how well many of the children’s films from my youth have aged or at least the animated films. I don’t know what happened at Disney after the mid-90s but their game really went downhill (though Disney only produced this film. They didn’t actually make it) over the last 15 years or so. If you’re thinking about showing The Brave Little Toaster to your kids, they’ll survive it. All of us who grew up in the 80s and early 90s did. Just be prepared that they may not be able to sleep for the next couple of days afterwards. Although don’t be surprised if you find yourself to be more affected by the movie than your children. Much like Toy Story 3 which was all about growing up and moving past the so-called golden years of your youth, the themes of abandonment and loneliness will be much more important to the grown-ups watching the film.
Final Score: B+