The Brave Little Toaster and The Last Unicorn may not be the most popular children’s films, but your kids’ favourites wouldn’t exist without them.
I recently wrote about how old most kid culture is, noting that the weak stuff simply disappears into the void. But, sometimes, quality works fall out of the pop-culture consciousness, too, so I subsequently tracked down a couple of forgotten films from my own childhood to show my three-year-old son: The Brave Little Toaster and The Last Unicorn.
But watching these underrated family films gave me a twinge of familiarity that went beyond my childhood memories. So I dug a bit deeper and discovered that they were essentially demo versions for greatness that followed. Let me explain.
The amazingly titled 1987 film The Brave Little Toaster is about exactly that—an anthropomorphic toaster who feels abandoned by its boy master and sets off, with fellow not-so-inanimate objects in tow, to find their owner before he heads off to college.
The rest of the film, which is often quite dark and occasionally surreal, follows said toaster, a desk lamp, electric blanket, radio, and vacuum cleaner as they leave their cabin and cross the vast wilderness to the big city. Along the way, they get captured by a nefarious small business owner and later battle some bad appliances who throw them into a dumpster and then they barely escape being crushed before finally reuniting with their now-grown-up owner.
If that plotline sounds like a mash-up of the three Toy Story films, then you win a no-prize. The Brave Little Toaster has been largely forgotten, which is not surprising since—despite raves at Sundance, a Van Dyke Parks score, and a voice cast culled from The Groundlings that included Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz—it had a very limited theatrical run at art-house cinemas. It did win an Emmy after its Disney Channel premiere, but never transcended cult oddity on VHS and didn’t even hit DVD until 2003. However, the creative forces behind it have not faded away.
The movie was initially pitched by John Lasseter, who wrote on CNN.com in 2006, “A friend of mine had told me about a 40-page novella called The Brave Little Toaster, by Thomas Disch. I’ve always loved animating inanimate objects, and this story had a lot of that.”
But Lasseter’s directorial vision for the film required a then-unprecedented mix of hand-drawn and computer animation, which was deemed too expensive by Disney. Lasseter was summarily fired and the movie handed over to an indie studio where the script was co-written by Joe Ranft.
Having now been turned onto the potential of CGI, Lasseter joined LucasFilm’s Computer Graphics Group, which was soon sold off to Steve Jobs who turned it into a little movie studio called… Pixar.
Lasseter hired some of his friends from Toaster, including Ranft, who went on to co-write the first two Toy Story films (a young Joss Whedon polished up the original’s screenplay), as well as A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc., and Cars, which he also co-directed. (Ranft sadly died in a car accident in 2005 at the age of 45 just before it came out.)
Last fall, the rights to The Brave Little Toaster were bought by the dude who made the recent Alvin and the Chipmunks movies with plans to jettison the old appliances for new characters like an iPhone. While it sounds like a stain on what little legacy the original film still has, ultimately, the movie’s true import is that it indirectly birthed Pixar.
The Last Unicorn operates as a similar origin story for another masterful children’s-animation empire. This 1982 film, based on Peter S. Beagle’s classic 1968 fantasy book, is a rather melancholy and philosophical story about a unicorn, voiced by Mia Farrow, desperate to find out what happened to the rest of her species.
As it turns out, the nearby king, voiced by Saruman himself, Christopher Lee, became so obsessed with unicorns that he conjured a demonic flaming red bull to chase them into the sea, where they were turned into whitecaps so he alone could look at them as the tide rolls in.
There’s a goofy wizard (Alan Arkin) and a romance with a prince (Jeff Bridges) after she’s accidentally turned into a mortal woman, but what really stands out is the Japanese-flavoured painterly backgrounds that have been described as darting “between impressionism and expressionism.” There’s a reason for that.
Though Rankin/Bass, of stop-motion Rudolph fame, produced the film, they actually farmed out the animation work to a Tokyo studio called Topcraft. Three years later, a young Hayao Miyazaki was so impressed with the intricate cell-work of The Last Unicorn that he hired Topcraft to adapt his hit manga, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, into my personal favourite of his many films.
Using the subsequent profits, Miyazaki founded his now-legendary Studio Ghibli and staffed it with Topcraft artists, essentially turning that obscure studio into one of the greatest animation houses of all time. Without the artistic achievement of Unicorn leading Miyazaki to make Nausicaä with Topcraft, who knows if we ever would have gotten classics like Totoro and Spirited Away.
Art is an evolutionary process, and when greatness happens it’s generally effected by prior causes, so it’s worthwhile to seek out the stuff made by our favourite creators before they became beloved. All you Incredibles fans, you can start with Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant.