Since it is my birthday today, I thought I would commit a series of blog posts reacting to one of my favorite childhood movies, The Brave Little Toaster (1987). This movie is a Disney classic and filled to the brim with meaning and thematic resonance. It is at once both bleak and hopeful, hilarious and frightening. It is sad and redemptive. It is light and complex. It is wonderful.
The movie follows five appliances (a toaster, a vacuum, a lamp, a radio, and an electric blanket) that have been left behind at an empty cottage by their “master.” Seeking to reaffirm their value and meaningfulness (their “function”, as they say), they set out on an epic quest to be reunited with their master and “plugged back in” to their essential purpose. In this post, I will consider the opening scene which constitutes roughly the first ten minutes of the film. If you have not seen TBLT, you may want to stop reading and check it out.
1. The Credit Sequence
The movie begins with looming strings and sparse piano trills in a minor key to create a sense of abandonment, bleakness, and despair. In this way, the music underscores the opening picture of bare tree limbs and grey, ubiquitous fog. This is a barren wasteland, devoid of life, light, and, as we will see, meaning. Notice the cold, mechanical font given for the title and the Gothic shadowing in the background.
Yet, as the credits roll, the fog slowly lifts to reveal a lonely cottage on a hill, perhaps our single bastion of hope in this gloomy atmosphere. In the midst of the clouded valley, we see a home, even though it is shadowed as well. This is our first taste of a theme throughout the movie – the glimmers of hope within the surrounding darkness prod us to persevere in a world of betrayal, confusion, and emptiness.
We then follow the camera as it zooms in to the cottage through a window (complete with broken, dilapidated shutters) and into the setting wherein we’ll meet our principal characters. It is key that the sequence moves from darkness to light as the sun rises during the course of this scene. It tells us that, though our characters are lost and sad, hope remains in the frame.
2. Light as Central Motif
For a collection of household appliances, the concepts of power, energy, and light represent the essential life force. Being “on” is everything. As we have five appliances anthropomorphized for our main characters, we should assume references to “being plugged in” or “turned on” to be a central metaphor for both life (electrical energy) and purpose (function). As mentioned earlier, the idea of one’s function plays heavily in this movie as a symbol for one’s innate purpose. These appliances, like human beings, were designed to fulfill a specific function. They were made for something. Yet, in this opening scene, we see each of them longing to be used, to be needed, to be fulfilled, with no “master” there to answer their quiet pleas for meaning and purpose.
So in this scene, we must notice how the image of light interacts with each character. Currently, they are all darkened, so to speak, dormant and devoid of purpose. Even Lamp, ironically, mentions the fear of this situation throughout the scene (“Who turned out the lights?” // “I hate being left in the dark” // etc.) Yet, light shines on each character momentarily. This brief glimpse of light affords the viewer a sense of hope that perhaps each of these characters may yet be reunited with their master and returned to lives of design and function fulfilled.
3. “A Tale Full of Sound and Fury”
One of the most striking elements of the opening scene is the strict routine our characters keep in maintaining the cottage for their master. Even though it has been, as Kirby the Vacuum puts it “2,000 days” since the master has been there, they work diligently to serve their purpose to a deserted audience. Kirby relentlessly cleans every speck of dirt on the floor, Radio entertains an empty room, and Toaster toasts…nothing. This is the despair of absurdity, the grief of discovering that in the great play of life, there may be no one watching. As Macbeth famously declares:
“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Interestingly, we get a quick image of such a “walking shadow” as Radio plays “Tutti Frutti” to begin the cleaning chores, which, ironically, are meaningless without the master at home.
Just before the cleaning montage begins, however, the appliances descend into full blown chaos. Without a master around and without any inherent purpose, havoc inevitably ensues (for appliance and human being alike). Radio and Lamp are fighting, Blanket accidentally smothers their duel (after having literally descended down the handrail, itself an appropriate symbol for the Fall), and Kirby unexpectedly vacuums up all three. It remains for Toaster, the leader of the pack, to fix everything. But to what end? Why should they get to work? No one’s home.
Once the disorder has subsided, Radio asks Toaster, “So, what’s in our lineup for today?” to which Lamp echoes, “Yeah, what are our instructions?” Again, we see a desire for purpose, for instructions given by a master to follow. This should not be seen as advocating any sense of mindless obedience without will. This is not a case of simple puppetry. Their longing for instructions to follow coincides with their longing to fulfill their function. They all self-evidently have a purpose and design, and following the right instructions leads to the fulfillment of that purpose and design. Notice how this speaks to us. We also have a specific purpose and design to carry out, and we long for our Master to give us our instructions. We all ought to wake up and ask the same question: What should I do to fulfill my purpose?
As Blanket moans, “I don’t like to work without the master.”
4. Longing for Master
All the cleaning suddenly halts as Blanket thinks he can hear a car coming down the road. Instantly, all of our characters rush furiously to see if the rumor is true. Is the master coming home? Could it be?
“A CAR!” they yell, filled with the hope of purpose. At last, our master is home! They scramble around the cottage for anything they can find to reach the attic window, their best chance to catch a glimpse of the master’s homecoming. They work together, reaching up to heaven to see the master.
Once Blanket reaches the window, he imagines the splendor and joy of what it would be like to see his master again, to be held and loved by him. The master bursts through the door in full and shining glory, arms out to welcome his weary and wistful friends, “Home, Sweet Home” lovingly pinned to the wall. What a picture of God and the beauty of the great Homecoming. The glorious moment of being reunited with our Master, our longing for purpose fulfilled, our existences meaningful once more.
Yet, at the height of this fantasy, the master becomes a mirage, and our characters bitterly return to their meaningless labor. Like Waiting for Godot, it seems the master will never come down the road, watch and ache though his appliances might.
We close this scene with Radio’s sorrowful broadcast:
“Sorry for that little interruption, folks. We return to our regularly scheduled program at this time.”
The hope of the master’s return has been dramatically reduced to merely a “little interruption” as our characters return to their insignificant, “regularly scheduled” work.
We must observe the fall from harmony and purpose that has taken place here. These characters have become disconnected from their Master and their individual functions. They are lost, reaching and hoping for a master to come home and revive them. What a picture of the Fall from our Created Design! We, too, were made for a purpose with a Master who loves us. And we are desperate for Him, frantic for meaning in our empty cottages. We must notice the dreariness and futility of a life spent fervently at fruitless work for a master who may never show up. Their faith, however, is ardent; they dare not give up hope that their Master is out there and their existences are meaningful.
Stay tuned for Discussion #2!