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The Brave Little Toaster DVD Review

The Brave Little Toaster movie poster - click to buy The Brave Little Toaster

Original Air Date: July 10, 1987 / Running Time: 90 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Jerry Rees

Voice Cast: Jon Lovitz (Radio), Tim Stack (Lampy, Zeke), Timothy E. Day (Blanky, Young Master), Thurl Ravenscroft (Kirby), Deanna Oliver (Toaster), Phil Hartman (Air Conditioner, Hanging Lamp), Joe Ranft (Elmo St. Peters), Judy Toll (Mish-Mash, Two Face Sewing Machine), Wayne Kaatz (Rob), Colette Savage (Chris), Mindy Stern (Mother, Two Face Sewing Machine), Jim Jackman (Plugsy), Jonathan Benair (Black and White TV), Randy Bennett (Computer)

Songs: Little Richard - "Tutti Frutti", "City of Light", "It's a B-Movie", "Cutting Edge", "Worthless", "Hidden Meadow", Al Jolson - "My Mammy", "April Showers"

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Twenty years ago, while Disney Feature Animation was in the process of escaping the creative doldrums that plagued them through the 1970s and '80s, The Brave Little Toaster was made. This feature-length cartoon represented the first completed project to arrive from Hyperion Pictures, an independent studio founded in 1984 by Tom Wilhite, who just four years earlier had become the youngest production chief in Hollywood.
Disney was where Wilhite quickly climbed the corporate ladder, moving from its marketing department to head of the film division at age 27, a role which had him greenlighting works like Tron and the Touchstone-launching hit comedy Splash, before resigning in 1983.

Adapted from sci-fi writer Thomas M. Disch's novella of the same name, The Brave Little Toaster had a most unusual release process. It debuted on television in the summer of 1987 on The Disney Channel, then a young subscription cable network. The following January, it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival, where it generated buzz and made history as the first animated film ever exhibited at the annual Utah shindig. (It remained the only one until 2001's Waking Life.) The acclaim was echoed in accolades: the movie was considered for Sundance's Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic), nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Animated Program category, and recognized with a Parents' Choice Award. Somehow, though, the honors and warm reception weren't enough to earn the film an orthodox theatrical run. Toaster adorned big screens briefly, here and there, over the next couple of years; two weeks at New York's Film Forum in May of 1989, shortly in Washington D.C. in March of 1990. Somewhere between July of 1988 and September of 1991, Disney acquired the film and distributed it on home video.

Blanky, Toaster, Lampy, and Radio look with despair at the new "For Sale" sign on their cottage's yard. We're off to find the Master, the Wonderful Master of Us!

Though the title singles out just one character, the chrome pop-up toaster is one of five electrical appliances at the foreground of the film. These dated but ordinary household objects are spectacular in one clear way: they are alive. The cord-tailed leads can talk, move, and feel. It is this last characteristic which is troubling the central personalities. They can find fun in doing chores each day, but that doesn't eradicate the void they feel from having long been separated from "The Master", the bespectacled boy who calls these items his own. Rather than continue to wait at the boy's newly-for-sale summer cottage for what feels like an eternity, the five appliances summon the courage to track down their old human friend.

Comprising the core cast are the two-slot Toaster (voiced by Deanna Oliver), the informed but overdramatic tale-telling Radio (Jon Lovitz), the bulb-nosed desk lamp Lampy (Tim Stack), baby of the bunch heating blanket Blanky (Timothy E. Day), and Kirby (Thurl Ravenscroft), a grumpy upright vacuum cleaner (hence the name). These five regularly-clashing devices eventually decide upon a battery-equipped rolling chair pulled by Kirby as the means for their road trip. Filled with both hope and fear, they embark on a long, destination-unknown journey that seems like their only shot at reuniting with The Master.

As on any good movie journey, adventure ensues as a mix of fun and peril is topped with an always-present air of uncertainty. A staple of present-day animated features, the central journey manages, appropriately enough, not to feel derivative of the more exposed cinematic treks it preceded. While leisurely paced and not groundbreaking in design, the appliances' against-the-odds quest in the outside world is fresh, not overly episodic, and plenty involving. The outing even proves to be a musical, though all but one song is saved for the film's second half. Composed by Beach Boys collaborator and "Bare Necessities" arranger Parks Van Dyke, the group-performed numbers grow increasingly catchy. The two best tunes ("It's a B-Movie", "Cutting Edge") are delivered in a lively fashion by separate outside groups of appliances that the five leads encounter. Like the items and concepts they discuss, the songs are dated by today's standards, but their fun '80s sound has far greater appeal than most of the present-day pop that's practically obligatory in 21st century CGI family films.

Connecting cords across two clifftops doesn't look like s recipe for success. A swinging light that sounds like Peter Lorre leads a misfit group of pawn shop items who claim their home is like a "B-Movie show"!

Typically, road movies reveal themselves to be more about the journey than the final destination, but The Brave Little Toaster makes it clear it's headed somewhere. In its inspired final act, the movie sets up a satisfying resolution, then delays it, relying on dramatic irony to build some suspense. As is often the case in cinema, the conclusion does feel prolonged, though much less so than works that consider conventional action sequences appropriate punctuation to more than an hour's worth of ideas. Here, thrills serve to strengthen the movie's evident heart, the two threads which emerge from the straightforward plot come together, and the appliances' ultimate fate feels both appropriate and deserved.

All in all, Brave Little Toaster has a lot going right for it. Its clever concept foreshadows Toy Story, which less than a decade later would, by moving from living ordinary appliances to living toys, get greater possibilities and more human characters out of a similar premise. Whereas Toy Story felt like the perfect starting block for a new computerized age of animation, Toaster seems grounded in an older type of storytelling.

The old-fashioned nature shines through the contemporary setting and in an appealing way. Despite noticeable attempts to the contrary, the animation looks fairly flat, but it is not without the vitality that's essential to the medium's charm. A welcome subtlety is employed in depicting the world from the appliances' point of view. There is not the child-pandering one might expect from the title and cheery cover art. There are a few witty allusions to classic films that will be appreciated by those cinematically versed enough to spot them. In a few places, the movie even packs an intensity that may upset very young viewers. There is a string of potentially frightening moments just before the halfway point of the film. Earlier than those, we meet a cold-blowing Jack Nicholson-esque air conditioner (voiced by Phil Hartman, like Lovitz, a "Saturday Night Live" cast member at the time), whose immobility distances him from his housemates. Yet, almost anyone old enough to be watching movies should be able to handle the film. Although never classified by the MPAA, the movie's content would probably merit a "G" rating or, perhaps in today's times, a light "PG" as is increasingly common.

More modern and expensive appliances offer a rude welcome to our more traditional heroes. This mustachioed-looking, Nicholson-esque air conditioner is one of two characters voiced by Phil Hartman.

While it wasn't produced by Disney, Brave Little Toaster fits in comfortably with the studio's catalog and with fairly good reason: many of the film's creators were previously employed at the Mouse or have since gone on to work on other Disney projects. Director and screenwriter Jerry Rees (who contributed to Disney's 1978 Christmas featurette The Small One and The Fox and the Hound beforehand) has since overseen a number of Disney Parks productions, including Cranium Command, Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, Dinosaur, and Drew Carey's immortal Sounds Dangerous. Co-writer/directing animator Joe Ranft would graduate to Disney and then Pixar, becoming one of the field's most respected story men before his premature death in 2005.

Ranft's comrade at Pixar, John Lasseter, is said to have been one of the movie's key developers, though he is uncredited. Lasseter and producer Wilhite reportedly went around pitching the film with Glen Keane, the 30-year Disney animation veteran who is currently directing Rapunzel. Keane didn't stick around to work on Toaster, but many other Disney cartoonists did. Among them: Randy Cartwright (a character animator during Disney's late '80s/early '90s Renaissance), Darrell Rooney (a three-time DisneyToon Studios sequel helmer), Kevin Lima (director of Tarzan and the upcoming Enchanted), Mark Dindal (former effects animator who directed of The Emperor's New Groove and Chicken Little), Chris Buck (Tarzan's co-director), and Rob Minkoff (one of The Lion King's two directors). Walt Disney Pictures is also credited with the titles and opticals on Brave Little Toaster.

The Disney connection goes even further. In the late 1990s, the studio collaborated with Hyperion on a pair of concurrently-produced sequels, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars and The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue. Hyperion Pictures survived the 1990s, a period when animation was almost the exclusive domain of Disney, with films like Rover Dangerfield and Bebe's Kids. The independent studio has also made live-action works, including 1998's Playing By Heart for Miramax. From time-to-time, Hyperion has also worked with Disney outside of the Toaster trilogy; they produced the Disney Channel's "The Proud Family", its feature-length finale, and the Buena Vista-distributed direct-to-video The Adventures of Tom Thumb and Thumbelina.


Buy The Brave Little Toaster on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.33:1 Fullscreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned
Release Date: September 2, 2003
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

On DVD, The Brave Little Toaster is presented in a 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer. It is not clear whether the aspect ratio reflects the makers' intent or not. Framing looked pretty fine to me, perhaps the slightest bit cramped. This means that, at worse, the presentation is either an open-matte of what was theatrically exhibited or, more likely, it entails very mild cropping. But, without hearing from the creators, there's no way of knowing for sure.

The movie starts with picture quality at an unpromising level. Repeatedly, the frame literally shakes back and forth horizontally. This is most noticeable on the opening credits, which are also grainy and messily marred by intrusions,
but the phenomenon persists to some degree until one gets used to it and the scenery becomes less fixed. Perhaps it's a mix, but the issue is not nearly so troubling or detectable for the majority of the film. On the whole, the video is largely underwhelming. A few scenes are definitely worse than others, plagued by print scratches and flaws, some of which remain static and others which disappear after a frame or two. For the most part, the movie is very watchable, but it's disappointing that what may be its only appearance on DVD is clearly not up to what should be high standards of a major studio distributor.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is far from the most active you'll experience, but it shows more signs of life than remixes that are essentially broad mono. The rear channels offer mild reinforcement on the music, while slight dimensionality can be found among the front speakers. The entire track feels a little low-key and distant, making this anything but a drastic remix, but then that should please both purists and those wanting a little bit more. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are gladly provided.

In "Appliances Come to Life", actor Fyvush Finkel discusses voicing a character in a sequel that's not on this DVD. The Main Menu boasts a brief but appropriate loop of animation.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

It's kind of surprising that there are any bonus features, a reality which makes one more forgiving towards the lone inclusion. "Appliances Come to Life: The Making of the Brave Little Toaster Movies" (9:45) is a featurette which spends much more time on the direct-to-video sequels than the more esteemed film it accompanies. Aside from two actor photos and some clips, it deals entirely with the To The Rescue and Goes to Mars. If the goal was to promote the follow-ups to those only familiar with the first movie, it fails, as we're merely treated to standard press kit-type sound bites. These sound bites come primarily from voice cast members and not even the most interesting or well-known actors. Absent are leads Deanna Oliver, Timothy Stack, and Thurl Ravenscroft. So are Farrah Fawcett, The Santa Clause's Eric Lloyd, Jay Mohr, Wayne Knight, Brian Doyle-Murray, Stephen Tobolowsky, Chris Young, Danny Nucci,
Eddie Deezen, and Alfre Woodard, who all lent vocals to the sequels. Instead, we hear from Eddie Bracken, Alan King, Fyvush Finkel, late "Star Trek" doctor DeForest Kelley, Herman's Hermits lead singer Peter Noone, composer William Penn, and Mars/Rescue director Robert Ramirez. Their observations range from the familiar to the uninsightful, making what would be "at least we got something" merely "I suppose it could have been worse."

It's also somewhat surprising that the menus are animated, though they remain simple, with merely a few different visual loops and a repeated-ad-nauseam end credits instrumental.

Outdated previews launch the disc, offering looks at The Lion King: Platinum Edition DVD, Brother Bear's theatrical release, Stitch! The Movie, Sleeping Beauty: Special Edition, and Piglet's Big Movie. The Sneak Peeks menu holds all of these plus a DVD trailer for Finding Nemo.

Nightfall doesn't prevent these determined appliances from continuing on their journey. Is this how things are going to end? In a junkyard? Say it ain't so!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

It may only be Disney-branded as the result of acquisition, but The Brave Little Toaster was made by many people who have been involved with the studio's animation departments over the past few decades. More importantly, though, this 1987 film is quite a bit of fun, serving up a living appliances road trip with involving adventure, spirited music, and a good heart. Though not quite a classic, Toaster holds up rather well at age 20. It still deserves the widespread exposure it merited but never received in theaters.

Between spotty picture, a questionable aspect ratio, modest sound, and a weak featurette that deals almost exclusively with the two sold-separately sequels, the DVD is a letdown. But as this remains the best way to see and own this entertaining movie, it can't be easily dismissed and may even be worth an on-sale purchase. After all, the movie is unlikely to be revisited on this home video format.

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The Book: The Brave Little Toaster by Thomas M. Disch

Related Reviews:
Toy Story: 10th Anniversary Edition (1995) Toy Story 2: 2-Disc Special Edition (1999) Cars (2006) Finding Nemo (2003)
Oliver & Company (1988) The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition (1989) Who Framed Roger Rabbit: Vista Series (1988)
DuckTales: Volume 2 (1987) Flight of the Navigator (1986) Benji the Hunted (1987) Cheetah (1989)
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) Beauty and the Beast: Platinum Edition (1991) Aladdin: Platinum Edition (1992)
Tron (1982) Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers: Volume 2 (1989) Good Morning Vietnam: Special Edition (1987)
The Fox and the Hound: 25th Anniversary Edition (1981) Robin Hood: Most Wanted Edition (1973) Tarzan (1999) Teacher's Pet (2004)
Cinderella III: A Twist in Time (2007) Chicken Little (2005) The Fox and the Hound 2 (2006) It's a Small World of Fun! Volume 4

Work Consulted/Recommended Reading:
Ebert, Roger. "Interview with Tom Wilhite." Chicago Sun-Times. July 18, 1982.

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Reviewed February 16, 2007.