Based on the book by Thomas M. Disch, The Brave Little Toaster was directed by Jerry Rees, who directed thirteen multimedia features at the various Disney theme parks as well as providing the computer effects for Tron.
After animators John Lasseter and Glen Keane finished a short 2D/3D test film based on the book Where the Wild Things Are, Lasseter and producer Thomas L. Wilhite chose this story to be the first CGI animated film that Disney would make. That said, they ran into issues as execs only saw CGI as a cost-cutting measure. Minutes after that meeting, Lasseter was fired*.
Development was then transferred to Hyperion Pictures, which had been created by former Disney employees Tom Wilhite and Willard Carroll, who were able to get funding from Disney, TDK Corporation and CBS/Fox Video.
As Rees was writing the film, he already started casting voices. Most actors that came in for a cartoon role were doing exaggerated reads so he turned to The Groundlings, with many of their members — Deanna Oliver (Toaster), Jon Lovitz (Radio), Phil Hartman (Air Conditioner/Hanging Lamp), Tim Stack (Lampy), Judy Toll (Mish-Mash) and Mindy Sterling (Rob’s mother) — making up the cast, along with Timothy E. Day as Blank and Tony the Tiger voice-over actor Thurl Ravenscroft was cast as Kirby the vacuum cleaner. It also has limited library music and sound design, with the score being recorded by the New Japan Philharmonic conducted by David Newman and nearly all new foley work done throughout the movie.
To animate this feature, a staff of ten people — including Rees and his wife Rebecca, who worked as the directing animator and taught classes to the animators they met — moved to Taiwan. They also had A. Kendall O’Connor on staff as a color stylist. He’d been a member of Disney’s feature animation department since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Many of the cast and crew members went on to have successful animation careers. Co-writer Joe Ranft became a script supervisor at Pixar. Animators Glen Keane, Kirk Wise and Kevin Lima went on to animate and co-direct The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and other animated features that brought cartoons back to Disney. Effects animator Mark Dindal directed Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove and character designer Rob Minkoff directed The Lion King and the Stuart Little movies. Pretty great results for a movie Disney didn’t want all that badly.
This film is pretty much the prototype for a Pixar film. Many of the studio’s most important members, including Joe Ranft and John Lasseter, were involved. It also has so many of the themes that Toy Story would further develop, such as the past being thrown away, a dangerous journey and adult themes appearing within a film for kids. In case you think this is just a theory, the proof is that the number A113, seen in all of Pixar’s films, appears as Rob the master’s apartment number. This number refers to a CalArts classroom that many animators studied in.
For the last two thousand days, a family of appliances has waited for Rob the owner to return home, but on day two thousand and one, they learn that their house has been sold and Rob is leaving them behind. Surely he wouldn’t do that, they believe, so they go out into the world to find him.
They discover a world that no longer wants them, as they aren’t modern any longer and so technology has advanced beyond them. Yet they hope that as Rob moves into adulthood that he can find a place for them, no matter how dangerous the path gets.
The Brave Little Toaster is anything but a children’s film. Being made outside of Disney allowed for dakr moments to be included, as well as a film that is more about the story than creating a toy line. I’m completely comfortable with sharing just how emotional this movie makes me.
*Strangely, The Great Mouse Detective was made with this same technique and no one got in trouble for that.