During his first stint with Disney, John Lasseter pitched an adaptation of the Thomas M. Disch children’s story The Brave Little Toaster. Computer technology was a wide-open frontier in the early 80s, and Lasseter was excited at the possible uses of computer graphics for animated backdrops. The studio didn’t think the bet would pay off and promptly fired him. Lasseter took a job at the graphics division of Lucasfilm, later sold and renamed Pixar. As for The Brave Little Toaster, it eventually became a strictly hand-drawn animated film, with a screenplay by Lasseter’s friends — and fellow CalArts alumni — Jerry Rees and Joe Ranft. The story of Pixar from that point onward is a journey from strength to strength. Lasseter and Ranft teamed up to begin work on what would become Toy Story. The computer animation pioneers maintained a quarrelsome relationship with Disney through that film and its first sequel. Then, in 2006, Disney bought Pixar, clearing the way for a third film in what had turned out to be a commercially and critically impeccable franchise. For audience members who more or less grew up alongside Andy, the main human character in the Toy Story films, the parallels between Toy Story 3 and The Brave Little Toaster were easy to spot.
Widely remembered as something of a scarring experience, an unforgettable piece of phantasmagoria for those young enough at the time to have it imprinted on them, The Brave Little Toaster still strikes me as an underappreciated film. Beyond the trendy appeal of the film’s jolts of “darkness,” the prevailing mood is remarkably sad. Conceptually, the story is a light parody of the idea of loyal pets crossing the country to find their masters, à la The Incredible Journey. However, Rees and Ranft treat the concept with the utmost seriousness. Note an early moment in which the film stops dead so that the electric blanket, Blanky (Timothy E. Day), can whisper, “A car.” The entire, unutterably lonely predicament of the film’s anthropomorphic characters is summed up in that moment. Aware of the passage of time, the blanket, toaster, lamp, radio and vacuum cleaner struggle with the possibility that the boy who used to visit them in their cabin has forgotten they exist. The Brave Little Toaster becomes a parable about abandonment and the fear of aging. The latter is epitomized in two scenes: first, a parts shop where old appliances get mutilated and cannibalized, and second, an apartment in the city filled with state-of-the-art gadgets.
The fear of being replaced runs through the entire Toy Story trilogy, with the crisis coming to a head in the third installment. Andy is in the process of moving out of his childhood home and going off to college — just like Rob, the absent boy in The Brave Little Toaster. He has to make a decision about what’s left of his toy collection, and chooses to store them up in the attic, with the exception of Woody (Tom Hanks), his favorite. The toys, however, have minds of their own, and many of them would rather spend their “retirement” years at a nearby daycare center. Woody tries in vain to talk them out of this plan, and later must help them escape when they discover the truth about their suspiciously idyllic situation. Abandonment doesn’t hang nearly so heavily over this film (partly because Toy Story 2 already covered some of the same territory, brilliantly). The toys must choose between, on the one hand, the cloistered stability and boredom of the attic, and on the other, daily manhandling by a rotating cast of young children until the toys break and get thrown in the trash. It’s not exactly the kind of dilemma to make one pull one’s hair out, and besides, there are hints throughout the film of a third way.
In the twenty-three years separating The Brave Little Toaster and Toy Story 3, animation changed dramatically and irrevocably. The earlier film was independently financed. It doesn’t look egregiously cheap, but it certainly didn’t break any new ground visually. The logistical needs of electronic appliances trekking across open country are not laid out with much consistency, let’s say. Still, there’s plenty of imagination for the price. An early nightmare sequence and the climactic junkyard showdown are oft-cited (including by me), but the film is filled with artful and varied approaches to the subject of death. The fact that the characters are neither human nor animal makes it more palatable, obviously. In addition, the experience is assisted mightily by the lovingly crafted sound design and a vocal cast stacked with improv comics. It all feels home-made when placed beside Toy Story 3, a film that isn’t lacking in personality but definitely seems more polished and micromanaged. Everything is in its place in this film, building toward the gorgeously realized escape sequence. Pixar had been leading the charge for greater sophistication in the medium for more than a decade at this point. The irony is that the characters in the studio’s flagship franchise remained visually simple and synthetic by design. The challenge was to play around with those physical limitations and to make these plastic people as expressive as possible. Given the iconic status of Woody and Buzz Lightyear, these films are a resounding success on that front. Even minor characters stand out in Toy Story 3, though, such as the Chatter Telephone that, despite its disembodied voice, conveys so much through the movement of its eyes.
Both of these films feint toward existentially depressing outcomes, but they ultimately settle for somewhat improbable uplift. The possibility that the appliances’ master has left them behind for good — that he, in fact, probably has a new and better toaster now — is, it would seem, too dark even for The Brave Little Toaster. The protagonists’ naked devotion to him is rewarded, and the final act is nothing more than a matter of missed connections. Likewise, Andy, always a good-hearted young man with an understandable nostalgic affection for his favorite toys, finally comes through with one last playtime. The scene doubles as a well-earned curtain call that always gets to me, despite its artifice.
These films span an important period in the history of animation — both the Disney Renaissance and the golden age of Pixar animation. Indeed, the credits for The Brave Little Toaster boast more Disney names than Pixar names (such as Kirk Wise, Rob Minkoff, Kevin Lima and Mark Dindal). And with the distance of eight years, it’s become very clear that Toy Story 3 marked an unfortunate ending for Pixar. The miraculously, preposterously inspired run of Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up and Toy Story 3 will almost certainly never be matched. Five of the nine movies the studio has released since then have been sequels, and while a case can be made for a few of these films, the record has undeniably become spottier. In any case, The Brave Little Toaster and Toy Story 3, while employing wildly different animation techniques, both get at the heart of the medium’s potential, which is to bring to life, and inspire empathy for, literally anything. As the unofficial motto of my blog would have it, everything has a face.