The Brave Little Toaster

Austin Chronicle


REVIEWED: 09-14-98

To animate inanimates: It must be an assignment the cartoon artists dread. We know, after all, how people look when happy, and can even get a fair picture of, say, an eager otter or melancholy cow. But how does a toaster register surprise? A candlestick sarcasm? A cucumber regret? Mostly, it turns out, with their eyebrows, neatly painted on to the most suggestive surface of the object at hand, along with companion eyes, laugh lines, cheekbones, and chin. That is to say, inanimate objects are generally animated by giving them human faces, human personalities, and human emotions, so that a lampshade might remind you of Peter Lorre, a saxophone of Jackie Gleason, an asparagus of Joey Lawrence. This is no great surprise -- who expected the animators to really get into the soul of an asparagus? -- but nevertheless it's done in particular style, and with varying degrees of success, each time it's attempted, and an animator who can't get you to feel your toaster's pain is an artiste indeed.

Of course, skeletons have been dancing and broomsticks sashaying since animation's earliest days, and one of the original Silly Symphonies contains a hellacious battle scene fought entirely by ill-tempered inanimates. You can find "Music Land" on The Disney Dream Factory, 1933-1938. Music Land is a place fraught with tension, with the Sea of Discord lying between the Isle of Jazz and the Land of Symphony. Of course, the young are heedless of such political realities, and a true Romeo and Juliet scenario soon develops between a dainty violin from Symphony and a lovestruck sax from Jazz. The saxophone's overeager courtship gives a whole new meaning to the term "horny," and soon enough the bassoons are scandalized. In short order a full-blown war breaks out, pitting ballistic sousaphones against ponderous pipe organs; the action here is at least as dramatic as Saving Private Ryan. "Music Land" also features dancing ukuleles, bootlickin' music stands, and a metronome doing duty as a coxswain. It is the first glimpse, as well, of a critical aspect of animating inanimates: how to use an object's structural particulars -- the tuning peg on a cello, the mouthpiece on a saxophone -- to best effect.

Lumiere, Mrs. Potts, and Cogsworth: Animating the inanimate in Walt Disney's Beauty and the Beast

That lesson, no doubt refined over the years through active imagination and the liberal use of psychedelics, reached its greatest fruition in Disney's delightful Beauty and the Beast, in which a enchanted castle full of animated housewares chatter about and generally run amok. Ostensibly a love story about learning to see the beauty within, Beauty and the Beast is really just a big hammy stage for those housewares to do their Broadway best. You'll see agitated ottomans, hapless hatracks, swooning featherdusters, and wise old teapots -- an all-star cast fronted by Lumiere the hospitable candlestick and Cogsworth the even grumpier wall clock. Far more intriguing than the Beast's eventual transformation -- into a dimple-chinned Michael Bolton, no less -- is the show-stopping "Be Our Guest," a musical number sung by the entire inanimate cast and led by the ever-arch Lumiere. It gives a whole new meaning to the term "torch song."

Less successful is Disney's The Brave Little Toaster. Perhaps the most haunting look to date into the inner life of appliances, The Brave Little Toaster follows five forsaken inanimates -- a toaster, a radio, a lamp, a vacuum, and an electric blanket -- as they set out overland to look for their missing owner. Like any great road movie, there are highs and lows, moments of fear and triumph, of bravery and malice -- but The Brave Little Toaster has the added difficulties of power supply and warranty expiration. It's a wholesome family movie, including the delicate scene where nature and technology meet for a surreal musical number at an out-of-the-way pond; the resulting harmony proves, if nothing else, that nature doesn't really abhor a vacuum. (They got along quite well, thank you.) A fine concept, and affecting at times, but Toaster suffers from an animation style more akin to Saturday morning reductionism than feature-film realism; as such, it's hard to work up any real empathy for the likes of Slots, Kirby, and Blankey, no matter how dire their predicament gets.

"Sunday morning values and Saturday morning fun!" That is the tag line for Veggie Tales, a computer-animated series centered around the Christian response to pre-pubescent dilemmas. Hosted by an earnest tomato and a slap-happy cucumber, centered around the spiritual crises of a family of endearing asparagus, it is also the most sympathetic cartoon treatment of vegetables since the days of Popeye. (It is also, in its own way, virtuously realistic -- asparagus hop rather than walk, cucumbers can't play guitars, peaches are perhaps the only members of the produce family with a legitimate reason to own a comb.) Story lines are standard sermon fare with a clever twist: "Where Is God When I'm S-s-scared?" has a young Junior Asparagus frightened by the movie monster Frankencelery; "Are You My Neighbor?" includes a Seussian fable of loving all vegetables, even if they do have shoes on their heads. (Don't ask.) Veggie Tales can veer towards the cloying and pious -- the "God is Bigger Than the Boogerman" song is genuine Bible camp material -- but mostly it keeps things fun and remembers to ask the important questions, such as "Can God squirt slime out of His ears?" Good animation, sharp dialogue, silly songs, and a Christian pretext: If you dig all four, or just care enough about the first three to ignore the fourth, you just might find yourself singin' the infectious theme song:

If you like to talk to tomatoes

If a squash can make you smile

If you like to waltz with potatoes

Up and down the produce aisle ...

Have we got a show for you!

Right on.

--Jay Hardwig

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