Friday, August 19, 2005

The Brave Little Toaster (Rees, 1987)

Now this is how you do a children's film. The Brave Little Toaster is an animated adventure simple and exciting enough narratively to captivate and thrill a three-year-old (such as the one who sat next to me) and complex enough thematically that it could easily serve as the subject for a Master's thesis. It is also exceedingly witty -- referencing Hitchcock, Peter Lorre, Bubsy Berkeley and Herman Melville -- and surprisingly moving. All this from a film that employs an electrical appliance as its protagonist? Well ... yes.

The personification of inanimate objects is something that young children do naturally anyway. A car's headlights become eyes. The refrigerator opens its 'mouth' and swallows the food. The knobs on Grandfather's backyard grill become boobs. (OK, maybe that one is just my nutty kid.) Anyway, the point is that it is a device that very young children use to help them to understand and define their universe. They know themselves (to some extent) and what it is like to feel and want and fear. But at that age, how do you understand the function of an electrical appliance -- something that seems somehow alive -- without wondering what does a microwave feel? What does the vacuum want? What does the toaster fear?

Though the toaster gets top billing, The Brave Little Toaster really has five protagonists (all electrical appliances) that work together towards a common goal, aid each other in times of danger and make individual risks in key moments to ensure that their mission will progress. The appliances follow the basic Toy Story rule when it comes to movement -- when they are observed by humans, they become inanimate, though I'm not exactly sure what would happen if one of them ever got 'caught'. At any rate, they begin the film in a cabin that served as a summer vacation spot for a young boy they refer to as The Master. Depending on how far you want to push the religious allegory, there is something deeply reverent about the way the appliances travel through the wilderness (go on a pilgrimage?) and put themselves in harm's way in order to be reunited with this being that makes each of their mechanical lives complete. If there were no 'Master', would there be any reason for the applicances to be sentient? Watching the film, thoughts like this would creep into my head. At that point, I would have to do a reality check. Yep, three-year-old is still blissed out.

The characters in The Brave Little Toaster face numerous obstacles and overcome each one of them through teamwork, creative thinking and most of all, a willingness to sacrifice for the good of the ultimate goal. There are perplexing dilemmas, narrow escapes, and leaps of faith. All of this is a welcome relief from the large majority of children's films which, despite their good intentions, have a hard time finding a way to resolve conflicts without resorting to some form of violence. There's so much more I could discuss about The Brave Little Toaster -- the wonderfully strange but effective musical numbers, the way it challenges the viewer emotionally without plunging too far into dark material, the way it trusts children's intelligence without talking down to them -- but instead I think I will end by saying that perhaps the greatest proof of the film's effectiveness is that there is no dialogue late in the film in which the characters summarize the point of the film or tell us what was learned along the way. There's no need. The film itself has already provided us with an experience that speaks volumes.



Anonymous Danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Children's Animated Flicks Tuesday at

Keep up the good work!

7:50 AM  

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