Featuring a stellar voice cast, an excellent script, a team of ex-Disney animators, and many crew mambers (including John Lasseter) who would go on to impressive careers with Pixar, The Brave Little Toaster was a delightful animated film that fell through the cracks during its initial release, but found its audience and a comfortable cult following on cable TV. In many ways a prototype for the Pixar and Disney Renaissance films that followed, it presented a winning voice cast, humor accessible to multiple generations, and a quasi-musical format with several songs.
Composer David Newman had just begun his scoring career by 1987, entering the profession several years after his brother Thomas and cousin Randy after a career as a conductor and session musician, but quickly amassed an impressive resume for low-budget films like Critters and The Kindred. Newman would be asked to compose the film’s original score as well as orchestrate veteran songwriter Van Dyke Park’s contributions, and he went on to produce an impressively varied work.
The Brave Little Toaster is not a thematic score, although Newman does occasionally reference the refrain to Parks’ “City of Light” in the underscore. Rather, the score is far more impressionistic, converying emotions through complex and layered harmonies. The music is surprisingly dark and tragic at times, with swirling piano and strings lending power to some of the more tragic cues (such as “Toaster’s Dream”), but is also bight and energetic when need be, with whirlwind action cues such as “They All Wake Up,” and the rousing “End Title.”
In fact, several cues run the full gamut of emotions, from joyous and liting to dark and moody. Chief among these are “The Pond,” which builds from an inventive use of sound effects as instruments to a level of magnificent orchestral tragedy, and the penultimate “Finale,” which moves from pounding menace to upbeat catharsis in a seven-minute powerhouse of a cue. The delightful “End Credits” offer a much-needed dose of joy to end the album, with Newman using the orchestral colors of the previous tracks to compose a delightful new theme in conversation with Parks’ “City of Light.”
Van Dyke Parks’ songs are treats, hold up well compared to many dated ballads from around the same time period, and are performed with gusto by the movie’s cast. Parks was no stranger to film music himself, having arranged music for films as varied as The Jungle Book and Popeye and composed the occasional original score like Follow that Bird and worked closely with Newman to orchestrate his songs. The upbeat “City of Light” is the film’s centerpiece melody, while the impressively twisted villain ballads “It’s a B-Movie” (including Phil Hartman doing his best Peter Lorre) and “Cutting Edge” impress as much through their witty lyrics as their melodies. But the downbeat ballad “Worthless” is perhaps the most impressive, laid out as an impassioned song by junked cars in their last moments of life and with strong echoes of themes that Pixar would later tackle in their Toy Story series, films which owe more than a little to Toaster.
But there is one major drawback to the album: two cues, including the magnificently melancholy “Blanket’s Dream” are interrupted by sound effects. Apparently, those portions of the master tapes were too badly damaged to be of any use, and record label Percepto placed the effects-laden tracks in as a substitute for completeness’ sake. Those tracks do sadly break up the album’s flow, and it’s unfortunate that “Blanket’s Dream” in particular is essentially unlistenable. Percepto, never more than a very small boutique to begin with, eventually folded quietly several years after the limited edition pressing of The Brave Little Toaster, meaning that copies can be difficult and costly to find.
Still, despite all that, The Brave Little Toaster is a magnificent album, and one of the very finest works from the underrated David Newman and Van Dyke Parks. If you’re interested in hearing a score full of boundless energy and inventiveness, one of the forgotten gems of animation scoring, and can overlook the fact that several tracks are distorted by sound effects, buy with confidence. The film, easily available on DVD and on-demand, comes with the highest recommendation as well.