Who knew appliances could be so magical? It may not seem as compelling as what happens in Andy’s room when he’s not around in Toy Story or The Secret Life of Pets, but The Brave Little Toaster sheds a fantastical light on those workhorse household machines that get us through our day.
The film focuses on the main character and his fellow anthropomorphic appliances: a radio, a lamp, and an electric blanket at a small cottage, who are waiting for a family, specifically a young boy named Rob (dubbed “Master”), to return for summer vacation.
When they all notice that the cottage has been put up for sale, the appliances head out on an adventure to find Rob for themselves.
The Brave Little Toaster is based on the 1980 novella by Thomas M. Disch, first appearing in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine. The Walt Disney Studios secured the rights in 1982, and a young animator named John Lasseter pitched it as a project for then-burgeoning computer animation. Unfortunately, it never moved forward.
Shortly after, the film’s production moved to Hyperion Pictures, a studio that former Disney employees initiated. Here, it would be an independent feature financed by Disney.
At the helm as director was Jerry Rees, who had started with Disney in 1978, mentored with members of Disney’s Nine Old Men, and worked on the visual effects for 1982’s landmark Tron. Rees brought a quality of classic Disney features to the proceedings, with his team of animators developing each of the appliances as distinct personalities (and employing comforting “squash and stretch” cartoony action to their movements).
Assisting with the character development in The Brave Little Toaster is a cast made up of veteran voice actors, writers, and comedians, such as Deanna Oliver as Toaster, Timothy E. Day as Blanky, Tim Stack as Lampy, John Lovitz as Radio, Wayne Kaatz as Master Rob, Joe Ranft, as the owner of an appliance parts shop, Thurl Ravenscroft as Kirby the vacuum and Phil Hartman, who voices an air conditioner in a great Jack Nicholson voice and provides the voice of a hanging lamp sounding like Peter Lorre.
The film also featured four songs by noted songwriter Van Dyke Parks, all of which add compelling moments, mainly “It’s a B-Movie,” an eerie, shadowy moment where delipidated and patched-together items in the appliance shop sing to the main characters, in a sequence of perfect cartoon creepiness.
It’s one of the many darker moments in the film but also one of the highlights in The Brave Little Toaster. Another involves the interaction with Hartman’s Nicholson-sounding air conditioner, who freaks out, realizing that his life is all about being stuck in the window, and a sad and off-putting moment when all the appliances find themselves at the junkyard.
The Brave Little Toaster had its premiere at Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles on July 13, 1987 and was also part of the 1987 Sundance Film Festival. It premiered on The Disney Channel on February 27th, 1988.
The generation who grew up with it on The Disney Channel, and those who enjoyed it on the festival circuit, helped The Brave Little Toaster develop a following through the years. The film is also noted for the number of talented artists who worked on it, such as Glen Keane, Kirk Wise, and Kevin Lima, just to name a few, that would go on to be significant players in the animation renaissance at the Disney studio in the 1990s.
The film proved popular enough to inspire two direct-to-video sequels, The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue (1997) and The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars (1998).
More than these sequels and its cult-following, thirty-five years later, The Brave Little Toaster is noteworthy as an animated film made at the precipice of that blockbuster animation renaissance, when animators found creative ways to express themselves, expand the medium, and explore new realms, including magical appliances.