The Big Picture
- The Brave Little Toaster is a dark and traumatizing animated film with an aspirational heart and spectacular animation.
- The movie was made outside of the Disney-dominated studio system and featured prestigious talents who would go on to work for Disney and Pixar.
- The film explores complex emotions such as grief, longing, and loneliness through its unique and distinctive character designs and animations.
Eight years before Toy Story brought inanimate objects to life, there was The Brave Little Toaster, an animated tale about five household appliances trying to reunite with their beloved owner. Released in 1987 by Hyperion Pictures, an independent studio founded by Tom Wilhite, the Walt Disney Company’s former head of production, and Willard Carroll, an animator as well as a producer and writer, The Brave Little Toaster is a spectacular film with an aspirational heart that transcends its limited budget. The Brave Little Toaster is also traumatizing. Some sequences qualify as quasi-horror. Who would think that such a charming name, such wholesome character design, and such an ingenuous proto-Pixar concept would be the darkest entity this side of David Lynch? As an adult, one must laugh to not cry in fear at the wanton death, destruction, and nightmarish appliance “body horror” delivered on a narrative assembly line. After growing up with this movie, is it any wonder my generation has anxiety?
Fond jokes aside, some of the animation industry’s most prestigious talents created Brave Little Toaster with a committed passion that shines through the screen. It’s the rare animated feature made outside the Disney-dominated studio system that wasn’t a Don Bluth creation (an animator who left Disney early in his career), although its ties to Disney and Pixar spread wider than just Wilhite. Many of animation’s defining names cut their teeth on this low-budget movie. Disney’s oldest storytelling strategies and Pixar’s defining themes are on full display throughout The Brave Little Toaster: the character-first focus, the edgier atmosphere, and even that adorable lamp mascot.
The Brave Little Toaster
A group of dated appliances embark on a journey to the city to find their master after being abandoned in a cabin in the woods.
- Release Date
- June 10, 1987
- Jerry Rees
- 90 minutes
- Hyperion Pictures
- Story By
- Thomas M. Disch, Jerry Rees, Joe Ranft, Brian McEntee
- Production Company
- Hyperion Pictures
How Was ‘The Brave Little Toaster’ Made?
In a 2018 Q&A panel interview with the DaveWeLike YouTube channel, The Brave Little Toaster‘s director and co-writer Jerry Rees shared his early history with the animation industry and his experiences making the film. During his time as a Walt Disney Company student and animator, he learned from the corporation’s veteran animators and brushed shoulders with future award-winning names like Brad Bird, John Lasseter, and John Musker. Rees’ co-worker Tom Wilhite saw potential in adapting the children’s book The Brave Little Toaster by Thomas M. Disch into a feature film, citing “each character’s very human need to feel wanted and useful.” But Disney declined to finance the idea despite John Lasseter’s enthusiasm for the project. (Instead, Disney secured Toaster‘s video distribution rights.) After Wilhite and Willard Carroll established Hyperion Pictures, they pursued Toaster with gusto. Wilhite made sure to hire Rees, offering, according to Rees’ recollections, “[not] a lot of money, but you will have a lot of creative freedom. Who could resist an offer like that?”
Rees applied the lessons he’d learned with Disney to The Brave Little Toaster, paramount among them prioritizing those characters Wilhite recognized and striving to evoke tangible emotions. A story about five appliances embarking on a cross-country crusade to find their human family is fertile ground for examining grief, longing, loneliness, inadequacy, and unconditional love. Despite industry peers believing that “a feature based on inanimate objects wouldn’t work,” Rees made his creative decisions with grounded realism and ensured each main character had a distinct personality reflective of their primary function yet contrary enough to allow for narrative arcs. For example, Blanky (Timothy E. Day) the security blanket has a toddler’s demeanor and deep-seated insecurity. The valiant Toaster (Deanna Oliver) is an optimistic go-getter whose reflective metal surface makes people feel safe. Lampy (Tim Stack) the lamp loves to steal the spotlight. Kirby the vacuum cleaner (Thurl Ravenscroft) is a selfish curmudgeon who “has a nervous breakdown” even though he sweeps up messes. Radio (Jon Lovitz) is made for audible entertainment but never listens to others.
This attention to detail ensures that The Brave Little Toaster‘s character designs and individualistic animations shine on a level equivalent to the as-of-yet non-existent Pixar. The roadmap’s clear: Toaster‘s Disney influences inform its priorities while other aspects predict the animation medium’s future. For example, Lampy is a tensor gooseneck lamp similar to the hopping one in Pixar’s opening logo, and we have the concept of living inanimate objects with unique characteristics embarking on a road trip to find their owner. It’s no surprise: according to The Animated Movie Guide by Jerry Beck, Toaster‘s animation team included Beauty and the Beast co-director Kirk Wise and Pixar story supervisor Joe Ranft. “When we started,” Rees said, “there were no rules about how appliances should move, so lots of experimental animation was needed. It was a time of trial, error and the spark of new discovery!”
Riding the momentum of Pixar’s 1988 Oscar win!
What Makes ‘The Brave Little Toaster’ So Scary?
When it comes to traumatizing entire childhoods with terrifyingly memorable and hauntingly evocative set pieces, that empathetic, meticulous approach is The Brave Little Toaster‘s secret sauce. Rees told his 2018 audience that he wanted to “[push] the envelope with something more adult.” He applied those goals within Toaster‘s first thirty minutes: the house’s air conditioning unit (Phil Hartman), already snide and insecure, goes so apoplectic with grief that he half-explodes in a raging, self-induced fire. The other appliances, although dismayed, leave him for dead. It’s a petrifying moment forever seared into my mind even as a thirty-something adult. The same principle applies to a worm escaping predators and a flower so devastated by loneliness that its petals wilt. The images are acutely effective and not employed by Rees with cruel intent, but to challenge expectations about the universal emotions — isolation, abandonment, depression, etc. — with which an animated movie can grapple. “If we did it through Disney,” Rees said to Moviemaker in 2011, “this movie probably would have never been made, or at least not like how it came out.”
But the horror element truly kicks into gear with Toaster’s nightmare midway through the film. In their dream, smoke transforms into a giant hand that kidnaps the Master, aka the family’s young son Rob (Wayne Kaatz). Then the smoke becomes a fire, and from the fire rises a towering clown dressed in firefighter yellow and sporting a grin sadistic enough to make the devil quake in his boots. Toaster flees for their life before falling into a bathtub of water. During Jerry Rees’ 2018 Q&A, an audience member jokingly asked, “How does it feel to be responsible for making an entire generation deathly afraid of clowns?”
Not long after, Lampy electrocutes himself trying to restore their portable battery in a thunderstorm. Kirby’s so terrified of a waterfall that he chokes on and nearly swallows his power cord. After a near-fatal mishap with a river, quicksand sucks the group into darkness. Technician Elmo St. Peters (Joe Ranft) rescues them from the muck, but the man’s quirky cheer is a front for Peters essentially being Victor Frankenstein crossed with an appliance serial killer. Rees and his team clearly modeled the scene of Peters disassembling a blender after classic horror movies. The blender hides in trembling terror before lying helpless on a table, the other appliances watching in abject mortification, as a shadowy Peters stabs, crunches, and slices with vicious glee and bloodcurdling sound effects. The poor blender even drips oil. You’ll never take your appliances for granted again.
‘The Brave Little Toaster’ Is a Proto-Pixar Masterpiece
In perhaps The Brave Little Toaster‘s most traumatizing moment, the heroes find themselves dumped in a junkyard disposal. Its constantly moving conveyor belt ends with certain death courtesy of a car crusher. As the junkyard’s doomed cars die one after the other, they croon an unfairly catchy tune about how their prior accomplishments no longer matter because they’re now “worthless.” The concept’s mood is profoundly disturbing in all the right ways, eerily prescient of Toy Story 3‘s distressing incinerator scene, and the animation team emphasizes the cars’ resigned nature with their expressive, forlorn eyes. If you’re in possession of heartstrings, they’ve been tugged to shredding. As if this weren’t ominous enough, Rob reunites with the appliances only to wind up trapped on the conveyor belt under a pile of junk. All he can do is scream for help as he’s carted relentlessly toward a horrific death. Toaster saves the day by sacrificially tossing themselves into the crusher’s gears. They’re decimated, but the beloved Rob survives. Children’s tender psyches, however, do not emerge unscathed!
Since this is a story about love, Rob repairs his equally beloved Toaster, revives the left-for-dead air conditioning unit, and takes the appliances to college. It’s a well-deserved happy ending. The appliances’ devotion to Rob is almost mythological, which reflects how much affection the production team poured into The Brave Little Toaster. Jerry Rees crafted a palpably emotional fable despite a tight budget and even tighter schedule. When Toaster screened at the Sundance Film Festival, the staff informed Rees the judges wanted to honor his film as the year’s best but felt they couldn’t recognize a cartoon and retain their credibility.
Denied critical recognition aside, The Brave Little Toaster‘s status as a cult classic speaks to the crew’s success. It’s a mini-masterpiece worthy of standing alongside the animation industry’s best — and the fact Rees bravely explored darker moods and thornier themes to the point of inducing terror is why Toaster remains a superb work. The Brave Little Toaster doesn’t condescend. Part and parcel of that, the team created a film for all age groups. “We never saw it as a kids’ film or a product,” Rees told his panel audience. They approached every element with the passion usually reserved for live-action features. When an audience member asked Rees about Toaster‘s noticeably mature tone, Rees shared, “That was the nice thing about being the tiny budget feature outside of the studio. […] We were allowed to because we were on the fringe.”
Rees incorporating bleaker material into Toaster makes it a more rewarding experience; here, Pixar’s emotional bones are readily apparent. Rees “hadn’t really thought about a time in the future when kids would have grown up with it. It’s pretty mind blowing.” The same sentiment goes for those of us raised on The Brave Little Toaster. We affectionately remember its traumatizing nature because it thrilled, challenged, and respected us. And it ensured we’d never set foot in a junkyard.
The Brave Little Toaster is available to stream on Prime Video.
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