Toaster is the leader of a group of appliances consisting of an antique radio, a gooseneck lamp, Lampy; an electric blanket, Blanky; and a vacuum cleaner, Kirby, who belong to their master, Rob. They wait every day at Rob's cottage for his return with an increasing sense of abandonment, causing Blanky to hallucinate about finally seeing Rob return. One day towards the end of July, the appliances are devastated to learn that a real estate broker is selling the house. Not wanting to accept the fact that the Master would abandon them, Toaster decides that the group should head out and find Rob. The appliances connect a car battery to an office chair pulled by Kirby and set out into the world, following Radio's signal broadcasts from the city, where Rob lives.
On their journey, the appliances encounter numerous harrowing adventures where they learn to work together. Shortly after stopping to rest within a forest, a nightmare where Rob and Toaster get tortured by an evil smirking clown dressed as a firefighter followed by a violent storm during nightfall wakes Toaster and the others with the storm blowing Blanky up into the trees, and Lampy risks his life by using himself as a lightning rod in an attempt to recharge the group's dead battery. After recovering Blanky the next morning, they try to cross a waterfall, but during an attempt to cross it, everyone falls in except for Kirby, who dives after them and rescues them, and the appliances wash up into the middle of a swamp. After losing both the chair and the battery, the group resorts to pulling a disabled Kirby through the swamp. After losing their balance and almost drowning in a mud hole, they are rescued by Elmo St. Peters, the owner of an appliance parts store, where they get scared by a group of partially dismantled or disfigured appliances, who have lost hope and are at risk of being disassembled or sold, almost in a prison-like motif. When Radio is removed from a shelf and about to have his radio tubes extracted, the appliances frighten St. Peters by pretending to be a ghost and flee to the city, while most of the worn-out appliances flee the store and return to their masters' homes.
Rob, who is now living in an apartment as a young adult and is about to depart for college, leaves with his girlfriend Chris to return to the cottage and retrieve the appliances to take with him. After secretly witnessing this, Rob's newer appliances in the apartment become resentful. When the appliances arrive at Rob's apartment, the newer appliances explain that they are "on the cutting edge of technology". After answering Toaster and the other four appliances their question of what they mean by singing their song to them, they kick them into the apartment's dumpster from the window, where they are shortly transported to Ernie's Disposal, a junkyard. Thinking that the cottage has been broken into and trashed, and his original appliances stolen, Rob and Chris return to his apartment, where his black and white television, who originally lived with the appliances, broadcasts false advertisements to encourage Rob and Chris to go to Ernie's Disposal to find Toaster and the other four appliances, and bring them back.
At the junkyard, the appliances are tormented by a maniacal crusher with its henchman, an evil tower crane with an electromagnet that picks up junk and places them on its conveyor belt that leads to the crusher. When they discover that Rob is in the junkyard, they are encouraged that he still needs them after all, and then, they attempt to foil the magnet in order to allow Rob to find them. After being foiled numerous times, the magnet decides to pick up Rob as well as his appliances, and drops them on the conveyor belt. Toaster makes a heroic sacrifice by jumping into the crusher's gears to disable it just in time to prevent it from killing Rob and destroying his appliances. Rob survives and returns back to the apartment with all of the five appliances in tow, including a mangled Toaster. And then, Rob repairs Toaster and takes the five appliances with him to college, along with Chris.Deanna Oliver as the Toaster, a gallant and inspiring Sunbeam leader of the five appliances. Jerry Rees, the film's director, called the character the warm one who is right enough to put up with everyone else. And the other characters seeing themselves reflected in its surface, feel an immediate kinship.
Timothy E. Day as Blanky, an electric blanket with an innocent, childlike demeanor. He also voices young Rob in the flashbacks.
Tim Stack as Lampy, an easily impressed yet slightly irascible Tensor desk gooseneck lamp.
Stack also voiced a man named Zeke.
Jon Lovitz as the Radio, a vacuum tube-based dial alarm radio, whose personality parodies loud and pretentious radio announcers. Rees performed Radio's singing voice, as Lovitz was working on Saturday Night Live at the time.
Thurl Ravenscroft as Kirby, a very deep voiced, individualistic upright Kirby-styled Hoover vacuum cleaner who dons a cynical, cantankerous attitude towards the other appliances.
Wayne Kaatz as Rob ("the Master"), the original human owner of the five appliances. Appearing as a child in flashbacks, Rob, now an adult, is leaving for college.
Colette Savage as Chris, Rob's tomboyish girlfriend.
Phil Hartman as the Jack Nicholson-sounding air conditioner, who resides in the cabin with the five appliances. He loses his temper while arguing with the appliances and explodes, and is repaired by Rob near the end of the film.
Hartman, doing an impression of Peter Lorre, also voiced the Hanging Lamp in the appliance parts store.
Joe Ranft as Elmo St. Peters, an owner of a spare parts shop, where he disassembles broken machines and sells the pieces.
Jerry Rees as a number of the worn-out appliances.
Jim Jackman as Plugsy, a pear-shaped table lamp with a light bulb upgrade in Rob's apartment.
Jonathan Benair as a black and white television who lives in Rob's apartment and is an old friend of the five appliances.
Judy Toll as Mish-Mash, a hybrid appliance consisting of a can opener, a gooseneck lamp, and an electric shaver.
Mindy Stern as Rob's mother, an unseen character.
Both Toll and Sterling also voice the Two-Faced Sewing Machine in Rob's apartment.
Randall William Cook as the Entertainment Complex, an entertainment complex system in Rob's apartment.
Randy Bennett as Tandy, a Tandy-styled Hewlett-Packard home computer who is the leader of the modern machines, who reside in Rob's apartment. While they were benevolent in the original novel, here they are jealous and antagonistic towards the main characters.
Louis Conti as the Spanish TV Announcer
The film rights to The Brave Little Toaster, the original novel by Thomas M. Disch, were purchased by the Walt Disney Studios in 1982, two years after its appearance in the publication Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine. After animators John Lasseter and Glen Keane had finished a short 2D/3D test film based on the book Where the Wild Things Are, Lasseter and producer Thomas L. Wilhite decided they wanted to produce a whole feature this manner.
The story they chose was The Brave Little Toaster, and this became the first CGI film Lasseter ever pitched. But in their enthusiasm, they ran into issues pitching the idea to two high level Disney executives, animation administrator Ed Hansen, and Disney president Ron W. Miller. During Lasseter and Wilhite's pitch, the film was rejected due to the costs of having traditionally animated characters inside then-expensive computer-generated backgrounds.
A few minutes after the meeting, Lasseter received a phone call from Hansen and was instructed to come down to his office, where Lasseter was informed that he was dismissed. Originally set to commence at the Disney studios with a budget of $18 million, development was then transferred to the new Hyperion Pictures, which had been created by former Disney employees Tom Wilhite and Willard Carroll, who took the production along with them after Wilhite successfully requested access to it from then-president Ron Miller. As a result, the film was financed as an independent production by Disney, with the aid of electronics company TDK Corporation and video distributor CBS-Fox Home Video.
The cost was reduced to $2.3 million as production began, approximately a third of the budget offered when in-house. Despite providing funds to get it off the ground, Disney was not actually involved with production of the film. Rees later commented that there were external forces at work that had the right to say this was a cheap film that could be shipped overseas, which the staff objected to and therefore were willing to make sacrifices to improve the quality of the film despite its limited budget. They were dedicated to making something they were proud of rather than simply producing a kid's film, and to following the Disney's Nine Old Men influenced storytelling. They also aimed to "not belittle it because it happens to be drawn". Tom Wilhite helped to maintain the creative integrity of the project.
In 1986, Hyperion began to work on the story and character development. Jerry Rees, a crew member on two previous Disney films, The Fox and the Hound and Tron, and co-writer of the screenplay along with Joe Ranft, was chosen to lead the project. He had been working on an animated adaptation of Will Eisner's The Spirit with Brad Bird, and received a call from Wilhite asking him to develop, write, and direct, explaining that The Brave Little Toaster was being adapted into a short, but that a feature film was possible if handled correctly. Joe Ranft and Rees worked on developing the story and designing the storyboards. When animators ran out of pages to storyboard, Rees sat down and wrote more of the script. Much work had to be done to adapt the book, for example there are only around four lines of dialogue that ended up in the movie.
There was a junkyard sequence in the original text, but it took place in the middle of the film. However, Rees decided that it should instead serve as the film's finale because the setting is the graveyard for appliances. He also wanted a definitive moment that earn the Toaster the title of "brave", so had the Toaster jump into the gears to save his Master, a plot point that wasn't in the book. Having the character's voices in his head when writing the script helped to personalize the dialogue. Rees even reworked some of the already-completed script in order to customize sections based on the actors' personalities. After cutting together the storyboards and scene-planning in Taipai, production manager Chuck Richardson explained the logistics issues - the film would be 1:50 minutes long. As a result, Rees cut around 20 minutes worth of the story – these deleted scenes that have not been released to the public.
Rees was still in the process of writing when he decided to find actors. Many auditioners presented cartoony, exaggerated voices, which displeased him, because they didn't believe their characters or bring a reality to the role. As a result, he sought out voice talent from The Groundlings improvisational group, after being recommended by Ranft who took classes there, and appreciated the honesty and naturalism they gave to their performances.
Many of their members, including Jon Lovitz (Radio), Phil Hartman (Air Conditioner/Hanging Lamp), Tim Stack (Lampy), Judy Toll (Mish-Mash/Two-Faced Sewing Machine), and Mindy Sterling (Rob's mother/Two-Faced Sewing Machine) voiced characters in the film. Already established as an actor through Tony the Tiger and Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Thurl Ravenscroft was cast as Kirby the vacuum cleaner. Heading the ensemble cast were Groundlings performer Deanna Oliver as Toaster, and newcomer Timothy E. Day as Blanky.
Oliver originally auditioned for Air Conditioner using a Bette Davis impression, but accepted the lead when offered. Rees, who had conceived Toaster as a female character, later recalled an anecdote where a crew member "slammed the door and walked out" because he had hired a woman to play the lead role. Day had never done acting work before, and had asked his mother to take him to auditions after becoming fascinated with a child actor voice-over. The actors brought a lot of comedy and funny moments to the dark themes that shrouded the film.
Recording sessions did not take place at Disney; the crew found and renovated a small derelict property in Hollywood. When recording, Rees first had each scene delivered as written, and then allowed the voice actors to play around with the dialogue, and ended up using many of the improvised lines in the final film. His direction primarily consisted of ensuring the performances were as natural and realistic as possible. Some of the recordings were done in group sessions.
For example most of Oliver's recording sessions were with Stack and Rees. After being cast, Jon Lovitz got an opportunity to appear on Saturday Night Live. Because Rees had written the part for Lovitz, he tried to find a way to keep him in the film, and ended up doing a marathon recording session, recording all his lines of dialogue on one night. Rees then performed as the stand-in for Lovitz when the others were recording. Rees described Day as an "amazing performer", who would ask about his character's motivation and the context of each scenario before recording his lines.
He was nicknamed "one-take Timmy" due to nailing the emotional truth of the text so quickly, such as crying loudly or delivering a line with a quiver in his voice. Comparing this film to the sequels, where a high note was dubbed by another singer due to being off-key, Olivier noted that in this film it would have been kept in due to being part of the character.
The crew initially worked on pre-producing the film for six months in Los Angeles in 1985, and then a staff of ten people moved to Taiwan with Rees for another six months to work with Taiwan's Wang Film Productions Co., Ltd. (headed by James Wang) for the principal animation, then returned for a third six-month work period for post-production in the U.S. Rees' wife Rebecca was the film's directing animator, and she taught classes to the Taiwanese animators in order to improve the quality of their output.
The animators also had a mixture of ex-Disney employees and college graduates from CalArts. Every day, they had to do what would normally be done across a two-week period at Disney. The colour stylist was veteran Disney animator A. Kendall O'Connor, a member of Disney's feature animation department from its first feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Oliver likened the light-hearted frog sequence to Merrie Melodies. A massive TDK sign was included by Rees as the company was a big sponsor. The animators used many visual cues to help inform the audience about plot and character. For example during Toaster's nightmare at the beginning of the film, he burns toast and emits smoke, which symbolises his guilt and fear of being responsible.
They deduced Toasters would be afraid of things like forks and falling into the bathtub while plugged in, so included them in this sequence. Oliver described the transition from bathtub sparks to lighting outside the house as proper filmmaking. Similarly, Blanky being a certain shade of yellow bears significance to the plot. In the beginning of their journey, the other characters dismiss him, even Toaster when he tries to snuggle him. Then Toaster encounters a flower that is the same colour, who also wants to snuggle. After explaining it is just a reflection, he walks away, thereby making the flower wilt. The next moment shows Toaster proactively rescuing Blanket. The idea is that the flower informs Toaster that his actions will make Blanky wilt too.
The film score of The Brave Little Toaster was composed and conducted by David Newman and performed by the New Japan Philharmonic. Newman's score for this movie was one of his earlier works and apparently one that he felt very close to. He did not view it as a cheerful one, and decided to give the film a dramatic score to reinforce the serious nature of many of the film's themes. In writing the score, Newman, "tapped into an inherent sadness in being abandoned and seeking reunion." Rees admired his "rich, classical style", chose him so the film didn't have "'cartoon' music". He said that Newman got into the headspace of the characters, and thought in terms of these inanimate objects as being real characters.
He said Newman's score was as "grand as anything he would ever do", rather than writing differently due to the medium being animation. He wove death, joy, love, loss, and struggle into the work. Newman's composing style was influenced by his philosophy that behind every "chord of joy" lies an element of sadness, whether it being the knowledge it won't last forever, that it is a facade for a deeper emotion, or that joy comes from sadness. He used lush strings in the opening scenes to convey a sense of longing. As the characters are introduced, the score becomes more lively, and each character has their own theme, influence by their personality. For example Kirby the vacuum cleaner is grumpy and old so his theme consists of low chords, whereas Radio was given a brassy fanfare to reflect his self-important personality. These musical motifs wove their way into the entire movie score. At some points, the style of music was used to provoke an emotional response.
For example when Air Conditioner breaks down, the orchestra trembles, then bursts with energy. Then the music returns to a somber tone, as the appliances realise there is truth to what he said. When they explore the outside world for the first time, the music fills with a "pastoral grandeur", and when they enter the woods strings, flute, bells, and brass enter to convey the simultaneous magic and danger of the outdoors. The film also contains a Busby Berkeley Italian opera-esque sequence containing a fish. The score was finally given a limited release in 2004. The film contains four original songs ("City of Light", "It's a B-Movie", "Cutting Edge", and "Worthless") that were written by Van Dyke Parks. Rees "felt uncomfortable with the full Broadway book musical approach", and his philosophy was that the songs should be part of the action and plot without stopping for a big production number.
He wanted characters to be able to break out into song whenever they wanted to, just like the films of the Hollywood Golden Age. Once they were written, Newman used them in his own score, for example the first song "City of Light" which shows the character's naivety and apprehension, contains a motif that gets more complex as the film goes on. This approach made the score more cohesive. "It's a B-Movie" is filled with black humour and the omonous pipe organ as the mutant appliances scare the main characters. The synthesizer-driven "Cutting Edge" sees the Master's state-of-the-art appliances boast about how great they are. The poignant number "Worthless" is a track filled with piano, strings, guitar, and vocals which are abruptly cut off when the singing cars are crushed. This junkyard sequence climax evokes feelings of desperation, danger, suspense and real world peril. Norman "reprises the score's subtle and varied themes over the end credits". Newman wrote and orchestrated the score over a 50-hour period, including his 12-hour flight to Japan to record it with the orchestra in Maeda Hall.
The New Japan Philharmonic gave the score a "luxurious sound" that was impressive given the limited resources available. The sound effects were not from a library, and was instead created by foley-ing various real world objects around Los Angeles, such an objects in antique stores. This was because Rees wanted to creates new characters with new sounds. The sound mixers, including former Disney studio mixer Shaun Murphy who recorded the score, asked how to do their job due to the film being animated, and Rees explained they should mix it like any other movie instead of a cartoon.
- Main Title (2:24)
- They All Wake Up (2:44)
- Blanket's Dream* (2:29)
- The Air Conditioner Blows (1:21)
- They Decide to Go (:54)
- They Look for Transportation* (:51)
- Out Into The World (1:41)
- “City of Light" (3:01)
- Blanket Looks for a Place to Sleep (1:05)
- The Pond/Busby Berkley/The Meadow(5:37)
- Toaster's Dream (1:17)
- The Storm (1:38)
- Blanket is Blown Away (1:39)
- The Waterfall (1:00)
- Vacuum Rescues the Group (1:31)
- They Sink in the Mud (1:28)
- In the Shop (:58)
- Blender's Motor is Sold (1:31)
- “It's a B-Movie” (3:05)
- Radio is Stalked (1:05)
- Happy Travel (1:14)
- Into the City (1:31)
- “Cutting Edge” (2:30)
- Junkyard Montage (1:25)
- “Worthless” (4:28)
- Finale (7:03)
- End Title (3:36)
Tracks marked with * contain dialog/sound effects Tracks in quotation marks are performed by cast
Director Jerry Rees described the main message is the film asks is: "what would it be like to be an appliance, and feel good when you're useful, and help people..."? He also explained that the film's themes included a "fear of being abandoned and wanting to be reunited with somebody that you love..." - the opposing forces of feeling like you're worthless and the joy of redemption. Another important notion was that of "valuing things from the past and taking them...into the future", both in terms of objects and relationships. All of the main characters have personalities that are unique twists on the appliance functionality.
Blanky is a security blanket but is insecure without its owner, the bright Lampy is mentally dim, Kirby is supposed to hold everything inside but has a nervous breakdown, Toaster is warm and reflective so can easily empathise, and Radio is constantly switched on and entertaining. He has the philosophy that despite being inanimate, they each symbolised things we actually feel. As the foundation for writing the story, Rees reasoned that the characters would only be happy if they were being used by the Master. As a result of this, a major aspect of the film is about inanimate objects becoming alive when you are not observing them.
As opposed to other films of the time, The Brave Little Toaster was able to include dark, scary, edgy, or risque content due to being an independent feature. They were able to explore the "wouldn't it be fun if" places that Disney wouldn't allow. They rejected the false dichotomy of being joke-driven or overly sincere, and instead incorporated both elements as that is how real conversations work.
The film's premiere was at Wadsworth Theatre in Los Angeles on July 13, 1987. With the producer help, the film premiered in various festivals, including the Los Angeles International Animation Celebration in 1987, and the Sundance Film Festival in 1988. It made history as the first animated film ever exhibited at Sundance, and remained the only one until 2001's Waking Life.
Though the prize went to Rob Nilsson's Heat and Sunlight, before the awards ceremony, Rees claims he was told by the judges that they considered Toaster the best film but they could not give the award to a cartoon as they considered people would not take the festival seriously afterwards. Though it is sometimes thought that the film was not released in cinemas because it failed to find a distributor, in reality arthouse film distributor Skouras Pictures took on the distributing rights for the theatrical release, and was going to do evening screenings, noting it was more for college and young adult than kids.
Disney, who had invested in the video and television rights, according to Rees did not want competition so moved their release date up and prevented it from being financially successful in theatres, forcing Skouras to withdraw their deal. The film premiered on The Disney Channel on February 27, 1988. To compensate, Hyperion continued its plan to enter the film into various festivals, and managed to secure limited theatrical airings at arthouse facilities across the United States, such as spending two weeks at New York's Film Forum in May 1989, and shortly in Washington D.C. in March 1990. This helped to give the film a cult following.
Rees thinks most people discovered the film thorough syndication on The Disney Channel, or through home video releases. In July 1991, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment purchased the North American video rights and released the film to home video format and LaserDisc. In the UK, the VHS tapes were released under Video Collection International (1990s) and Carlton Video (2000s), while in the USA and Australia, Walt Disney Home Video and Roadshow Home Video have the rights respectively.
In Spain, Divisa Home Video and Aurum Produccines were in charge of distribution, the former during the 2000s. Disney's VHS was re-printed throughout the '90s onward, and it enjoyed popularity as a rental amongst children. The DVD was released in September 2003, to tie in with the film's 15th anniversary. In the UK, Prism Leisure Corporation was in charge of distribution. Their license has since expired, but the disc can still be found on UK-shopping sites. Disney's releases commonly use a Laserdisc transfer from the early 90's, while Prism Leisure's DVD uses a fresh transfer from an international print.
The film has garnered a 75% rating on the reviews website Rotten Tomatoes, based on only 12 reviews. Mary Houlihan-Skilton of Chicago Sun-Times gave a positive review, but found a problem with the "storytellers us[ing] caricatures of Peter Lorre, Jack Nicholson, Mae West, Joan Rivers and others to portray them. This is so old. It's been used forever and should be given a rest."
The Washington Post called it "a kid's film made without condescension", while The New York Times said "visually the movie has a smooth-flowing momentum and a lush storybook opulence". TimeOut said the film had "a winning combination of inventive characters, amusing dialogue, excellent voice-overs, likeable tune and first-rate animation". Deseret News wrote it is "a wonder of the movie industry...a funny, occasionally thrilling animated feature aimed at kids, but with a sophisticated sensibility intended to reach their parents as well." The staff of Halliwell's Film Guide called it an "odd fantasy of pots and pans with no more than adequate animation", and director Roland Joffe told Rees he was "moved to tears", something "he never expected from talking animated appliances."
Projection Booth, Film Freak Central, Arizona Daily Star, and Internet Reviews all gave the film their highest rating, describing it as "among the finest animated films Disney never made", "Blade Runner for children", "an overlooked classic [and] utterly rewatchable fable", and "an absolute delight for people of all ages" respectively. Needcoffee.com gave the film a 4/5, writing that despite a questionable premise, "it's an actually cute and extremely fun animated flick". Las Vegas Review-Journal, Movie Mom at Yahoo! Movies, and eFilmCritic.com all gave the same score, the latter describing it as a "perfectly charming kid's flick about adventuring appliances". Northwest Herald gave a 3/5, EmanuelLevy.Com and Talking Pictures gave a 2/5, and Spirituality and Practice gave a 1/5.
This film is unique in that it attracted a substantial amount of talent from both old and new sources. Many of the cast and crew members went on to have successful careers in the animation industry. Co-writer Joe Ranft became a script supervisor at Pixar, while animators Glen Keane, Kirk Wise and Kevin Lima went on to animate and co-direct films of the Disney Renaissance, such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and Tarzan. Keane would also go on to produce the 2010 animated film Tangled. Effects animator Mark Dindal directed Disney's The Emperor's New Groove and Chicken Little, as well as Warner Bros.' Cats Don't Dance. Character designer Rob Minkoff directed The Lion King, Stuart Little, Stuart Little 2, and Mr. Peabody & Sherman. After directing a financially unsuccessful film The Marrying Man in 1991, Jerry Rees now directs Disney theme park films. Voice actors Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman wound their way onto animated series such as The Simpsons. Many have noted that this film shares similarities to the Toy Story franchise, also worked on by John Lasseter. Rees saw it as "the next inanimate object feature".
The Brave Little Toaster was followed by two sequels a decade later: The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars (1998) and The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue (1999). The former is based on the sequel to Disch's novella while the latter is a brand new story. While reuniting most of the cast, they had a new director and crew, and were released out of chronological order. Rees noted that the original film was made out of pure love and not thought of as a kid's film or a product, and that he had heard the new approach was a more commercial venture. Deanna Oliver felt that despite Ramirez being a talented director who handled the franchise with care, instead of "film" and "character driven", the project seemed more about getting it done because it could be made. Neither Rees nor Oliver have watched the finished sequels. Waterman Entertainment is currently in the process of developing a remake.
Despite its limited release, the cult following of the film has seen the cast and crew get substantial recognition throughout the world. Rees recalled a situation where a person he was doing an online project with messaged him on IMDB, discovering his work on TBLT, and explained how deeply the film affected him due to teaching life lessons. He appreciated this genuine reaction from a real person. Oliver went to the Afghanistan deployment ceremony for her son in June 2010, and he had told Brave Company his mother played Toaster, so they brought toasters with them for her to sign, which the soldiers took to the country with them. She also received fan art from one of the soldiers. The consensus among people who worked on the film such as Tom Wilhite and Donald Kushner is that the original is the one that has the cult following as opposed to the sequels. Rees said that when his future Pixar friends saw the film, they appreciated it despite the animation due to the heavy financial and time constraints.