Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Brave Little Toaster

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Brave Little Toaster

I have been hoping to write about D.W. Griffith for a few days now; a disc of Biograph shorts is sitting impatiently beside my computer. It will have to wait, because I want to watch the whole thing before writing on it and - at 3 hours long - I didn't get to it today. Instead, I've reviewed the second animated film in a row. Like yesterday's Spirited Away, The Brave Little Toaster was released by Disney without actually being a Disney film (a quick glance at the names of the animators reveals that it was largely a Chinese operation). Its eccentricity is apparent from the title, while the source material only adds to the general air of idiosyncrasy.

This evening I stumbled across the unfortunate news that sci-fi author Thomas M. Disch had killed himself a few weeks ago. In addition to writing highly literary, much-acclaimed, but scarcely-read fiction, Disch was a poet, a playwright (whose work the Catholic Church tried to prevent from being performed), and, as it happens, the author of a children's book called The Brave Little Toaster, turned into an unusual animated film which inspired several sequels and still proves popular today. I haven't read any of Disch's work, though after reading a few of his obituaries I may be inspired to. A quick glance at the Amazon summary of Brave Little Toaster (grumpily described by a School Library Journal critic as "lamentable idiocy") reveals that its plotline does not entirely correspond with the film and, given Disch's reputation for stubborn individualism, it would be interesting to note where allowances and modifications were made for mainstream consumption.

That said, the film itself remains an original conception with some pleasingly rough edges. The story follows several appliances (a vacuum cleaner, an electric blanket, a desk lamp, a radio stuck in the 1940s, and of course the titular toaster) who tire of their lonely life in an abandoned cabin and journey through the woods to a big city, in pursuit of the child (now a young man, college-bound) who gave them love and affection in the good old days. Every now and then you have to stop and remind yourself that these aren't people we're rooting for, nor are they animals or even anthropomorphized robots. They are, rather, just about the least inherently sympathetic protagonists one could put onscreen. True, the animators made the toaster and his pals cuter than the appear on Disch's book cover, but the fact remains: we're made to identify with and feel for a goddamn toaster! Just repeat it to yourself and watch that goofy grin grow.

That the movie takes these consumer goods and uses them to deliver a heartfelt message about authenticity and the worthiness of the old and forgotten only adds to the charm and chutzpah. When the appliances are on the road, the concept is amusingly absurd but little more. The story really finds its teeth when the appliances arrive in the city and are forced to confront their old master's newer, shinier toys, from massive stereos to computers to microwaves (all of which are, of course, equally outdated 20 years after the film was released). In a surreal satire of advertisements they badger their antique cousins with an electronic song and dance.

Here might be a good place to point out that of all the movies I've recently reviewed, it's not so much the other animated film, Spirited Away, that Brave Little Toaster resembles, but rather the Talking Heads video collection Storytelling Giant. Like that work, released around the same time, Brave Little Toaster redeems the offspring of consumer society by personalizing it and turns consumer goods into means of self-expression. In this, it's no different than any thrift shop or hipster boutique; in today's world of vinyl fetishists, fashion throwbacks, and the re-discovery of childhood toys (on eBay) and videos (on You Tube), the message of The Brave Little Toaster - don't throw away your used-up products because they may have more personal value than whatever's new and shiny - certainly resonates.

The climax of the film arrives in a junkyard with an oddly poignant scene of destruction, as car after car marches off to its death, remembering its glory days in historically and geographically specific detail. Throughout the film, we are constantly reminded of the appliances' fragility, and a palpable sense of mortality and the passage of time hangs over the movie. There's the radio, belonging to the past with his clipped delivery (provided by Jon Lovitz) and warmly nostalgic references to FDR and the Brooklyn Dodgers; then there's the mutilation (essentially, the murder) of a blender in a sleazy chop shop; the fear of rain and lightning; and the unusual occasion (unusual in a cartoon anyway) of seeing a kid grow up. And there's sadness too, most effectively conveyed as a flower, seeing its reflection in the toaster, struggles to uproot itself before drooping and losing a petal as it sits alone in the shade, another sign of life inching towards its inevitable conclusion.

Indeed, despite the ridiculousness of its conception, the brightness of its animation, and the cheerfulness of its happy ending, The Brave Little Toaster has garnered a reputation as a dark movie. Seen in light of Disch's tragic death, the darkness comes into even sharper relief. But it's not merely a case of projection; in choosing appliances, with their limited shelf life that ranges from glorious newness to steady utility to ultimate irrelevance, Disch has (perhaps inadvertently) struck on a compelling metaphor for the fleeting quality of human life, particularly in the context of society. Perhaps the Disney film isn't so far from his sci-fi work after all.

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