In honor of Villeneuve’s much-anticipated new movie, let’s not watch it and play the Dune II real-time strategy game from 1992 instead.

I first discovered the genre in 1999, with Age of Empires II. Lucky break, that’s still probably the best one. I then worked backwards through Age of Empires I (1997), Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995), Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994), then Dune II (1992), unwittingly playing games that had directly “inspired” (been ripped off by) the next. It was like following a river back to its point of origin—each game was clearly the same idea, just older and clunkier and missing more features. It was like watching a painting slowly get unpainted.

Dune II is the beginning of the line. The pencil strokes on a white canvas. The darkness on the face of the deep. For years, every gaming site (and the Guinness Book of Records) claimed it was the first real-time strategy game ever made. But history has now been revised, and now an obscure 1989 title called Herzog Zwei (on the Sega Genesis!) has the honors. RTS games are like punk rock bands. Each time you think you’ve located the first one ever, there’s an even earlier one, buried deeper in the archaeological record.

Don’t ever try to be a gaming historian, it’s fucking impossible. You can make the simplest statement of fact (“games can be played on a computer!”) and a smug asshole will “actually…” you five seconds later. The worst part about these pedantic corrections? They’re always correct. History is meaningless sand. Every fact can and will be rewritten. I once believed Wolfenstein 3D (from 1992) was the first FPS game in history. Stupid. I want to build a time machine*, so I can twerpishly say “actually, Catacomb 3-D came out in 1991″ to my ten year old self. But I’d be interrupted by a dozen other time-travelling clones of myself, each bearing their own corrections. “Actually, it was MIDI Maze in 1987″, “actually, it was Battlezone in 1980″, etc, etc. I’m just going to draw a line and declare by fiat that every game idea ever (from Pong to Fortnite to Battle-Raper) was invented in the early 1970s by a beardo with a PLATO mainframe. Fuck gaming forever. (And obviously, I would never misuse a time machine for such a purpose: I’d do the same two things we all would: save Hitler and have sex with my own grandfather.)

I am sorry for these bizarre rants. You probably think I’m on chemicals. Just remember: me being insane does not prove there are no cats living inside my hair-drier.

Dune II. What’s Dune II like?

Charming but creaky. You feel its age. Playing it is as awkward as it gets without moving soldiers using manually-typed x86 assembly pointers, but it’s clearly the template for a hundred later games. Everything that makes the RTS genre compelling is here: resource management, base-building, training and upgrading soldiers. Its paternity cannot be doubted. Dune II is the Yesugei to Starcraft II‘s Chinggis Khan.

(If you’re wondering, Dune I is an unrelated adventure game developed by a different studio.)

Dune II‘s MCGA/VGA 320×200 graphics are extravagant for 1992. When you load into a match, you are treated to the time-honored “Talking head explains the mission to you” thing (swiped from Sid Meier’s Civilization), which also become a genre cliche. The in-game graphics are exactly as bright and as colorful as you’d expect for a 1992 game set on the desert world of Arrakis (which means “very” and “not much”, respectively). There are four kinds of terrain: Sand(tm), Different Sand(tm), Gravel (where you construct buildings), and Spice (which you harvest and use to train soldiers, build buildings, and so on). It might be visual monotony (tetranomy?), but at least it’s clear and simple.

The game doesn’t have a story, it has a setting. Frank Herbert’s Dune. If you’ve never heard of Dune, let me bring you up to speed on the story: It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy blah blah something something Wookies Jar Jar Binks midichlorians #OscarsSoWhite #FireKathleenKennedy #GamerGate #ReleasetheSnyderCut

The Dune franchise was at a low commercial ebb by 1992. Frank had passed six years previously, and the questionable “revival” led by his son Brian was still many years away. In 1984, David Lynch adapted Dune into a fascinating film that left a Tsar Bomba-sized crater at the box office. Early 90s sci-fi was fearsomely hip and cool, and though Dune remained highly regarded, it was still a book from 1965 and loaded with storytelling conventions that had fallen out of fashion—the way characters have long internal monologues on the page, for example. It belonged to a different world, and was more comparable to Lord of the Rings than, say, Mona Lisa Overdrive.

I am struck by the sense that Westwood (or Virgin, who secured the rights) didn’t particularly care for Dune as a story. Instead, they wanted its galumphing “space-age Lawrence of Arabia” setting, which seems ready-made for videogame adaptation. This is like how Star Wars is compelling for its fantastic future-junkyard setting, and not its bog-standard “hero’s journey” plot. (Although this comparison gives short shrift to Dune, which unlike Star Wars has a very strong story).

You play as one of three factions, House Atreides, House Harkonnen, and House Ordos (who I don’t remember from the book, and according to Wikipedia, they aren’t in the book!). Unlike Warcraft (whose orcs and humans are largely mirrors of each other), the Houses diverge substantially in what they can do. Only the Atreides can recruit Fremen. Only the Ordos can make Deviators (who, in a clever touch, can convert enemy units to your side—this game inspired Age of Empires’ iconic “wololo” monks!). The game doesn’t let you train Sardaukar (although you do fight them in one mission), which feels like a missed opportunity.

The lore-heavy setting makes Dune II difficult for a new player. What’s a Wind Trap? If I’m under attack by Trikes, what units should I make to fight them? How many silos should I build? Warcraft is easier to grasp: it’s intuitive that peasants build farms and gather gold and lumber. It’s intuitive that an archer can shoot over a distance and is a good choice for defending a wall. Warcraft is a game of things you know. Dune II is an alien world that forces you to learn by building and trying.

Your Mentat (who can be accessed via the top-left icon) is little help: he provides flavor-text and worldbuilding but little useful information. “The Wind Traps provide power and water to an installation.” Uh, what’s “power” and “water”, in the context of the game? Why do I need these things? Most of the text seems written with the presumption that you want to know how things work in the Dune universe, rather than how to use them in the game.

That aside, Dune II is mechanically simple. If anything, you spend more time unlearning things that aren’t in the game: it’s primitive by modern standards, and many taken-for-granted features of modern strategy games literally hadn’t been invented yet.

There’s no “fog of war”. The map starts out shrouded in black, but when a unit scouts the black, the area stays visible forever. This allows for cheesy strategies, like sending a soldier on a suicide mission into the enemy base, you can watch everything they’re doing for the remainder of the match. There are no production queues. No waypointing. No “find an idle spice harvester” button. You have to walk to school uphill, both ways, in the snow. I did enjoy the fact that if you don’t have enough resources to build something expensive, you can partially build it, and then finish the job when you have more spice. That’s nice.

But the game’s most stark omission is its lack of IPX/SPX/null modem support. Dune II is single-player only, and to be blunt, the enemy player AI is not good enough for it to be single-player only.

The enemy AI in later RTS games was controlled by a script. I used to write them myself for Age of Empires II, which had a little programming language that offered great flexibility. Some fan-made AoEII AIs ran for tens of thousands of lines of code, and spent years in development.

Dune II‘s AI is a little different. In fact, it’s not really an AI at all. According to Westwood lead programmer Joe Bostic, level designers would hard-code an “end state” for the enemy’s base, and the AI would simply follow a template. This means Dune II’s AI does not surprise you, or react intelligently. It blindly follows a step-by-step sequence of rules. But as 21st century AI bros inform me, doesn’t the human brain work like that? Aren’t we all just rule-following robots? That’s right: you are exactly as intelligent as Dune II‘s AI. Westwood achieved AGI in 1992 and the world doesn’t know it.

Sadly, much of the game is decidedly unintelligent. Dune II only lets you move one soldier at a time. This is frustrating (and the game’s biggest problem): any move or attack command must be issued separately to every soldier in your army. Imagine being a general in real life, but you can’t just mass-order your men to the front. You have to go to their tent, one at a time, and crack open a beer before asking politely if they’d mind moving to a new position. War would become impossible. Universal peace would reign. It would be horrible.

It’s almost pointless building a big army in Dune II: you can’t effectively control it in battle. Even moving a single soldier requires three inputs. You select the unit, click “move” (or hit M), and then click the place on the map you want the soldier to go. Think of this as an equation: to move an army in Dune II, you must click 3(X/1) times, where X is the size of your army (and all “fractional clicks” are rounded up into whole numbers). To get eighteen Ordos siege tanks in position, you must click thirty-six times. That’s ridiculous.

By contrast, Warcraft lets you move soldiers in groups of four. The equation becomes 3(X/4): moving twelve spiders takes nine clicks. Much better. Warcraft II goes one better by eliminating the “move” button requirement: you just right-click somewhere, and the engine guesses from context whether you want to move or attack. It also lets you select nine soldiers at a time. The equation is approximately 2(X/9): so moving twelve grunts takes four clicks. Later strategy games have no selection limit. In Cossacks, you move an army of arbitrary size with just two clicks.

But this was 1992. The dark ages. A year when police beat up black people, and sex perverts became President. I forgive Dune II for not predicting the future (I can’t do that either), but it’s frustrating to lose battles that you know you could have won, simply because you can’t click fast enough.

Dune II is incredibly micro-intensive. I can’t stress this enough. You need to constantly be on the ball, hopping from base to battlefield and back again. Controlling your units is difficult at the best of times. Things just stop working in this game, for no good reason. Your spice harvesters will sit around uselessly at refineries, waiting for orders. Your soldiers will ignore enemies standing right next to them unless you tell them (one at a time!) to attack.

The game’s apparent simplicity is undermined by the fact that you must be everywhere on the map at once, giving orders, or reminding soldiers of orders you gave them five seconds ago. Frank Klepacki composed the music, but Dune II’s real soundtrack is clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick. This isn’t a game so much as a Gom Jabbar torture test for mouse springs. Remember, little Logitech, fear is the mouse killer.

The game is flat, both visually and strategically. There are no natural obstacles such as walls or cliffs. The entire planet of Arrakis can be traversed in a straight line. This makes it easier to play than Warcraft (where poor pathfinding will cause your soldiers to get stuck against stray trees and bits of wall), but limits strategy. There’s nothing to fight over aside from gravel and spice. There are no chokepoints or funnel-points or defensible positions. This, combined with the hidebound AI, ensures that every match plays out in a similar fashion.

The dense fog of choices that Warcraft II immerses you in (do you 1-hall or 2-hall? Grunt rush or tech straight to stronghold?) does not exist in Dune II. There’s simply a “correct” way to play the game: it can be solved like an equation, and once you know the equation…what do you do then?

Maybe investigate the real issue: does the game have worms?

Yes, the game has worms!

They are a bit disappointing, though. The sand vibrates a little, and then a Shai-Halud pops up, eats a soldier or two, and vanishes. You can actually kill them, if you want. Pretty lame.

So that’s Dune II. The first of its kind. Or the second, third, or fourth. Whatever it is, it inspired everything that came after. Few games are so heavily imitated. Its place in history is secure (as secure as history can be), but is it worth playing today?

I’d say so. Maybe for a few games, anyway. You might really like it, and extend those few games to many. I stopped after a few. To be honest, I am uncomfortable when playing ancient games. I irrationally feel like they’re going to break while I play them, like they’re porcelain Ming vases in a museum. But maybe you want to smash the fuck out of some Ming vases, so have at it.

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This novel’s sales pitch shines from it like a Vegas billboard: “a fairy tale…but dark and edgy. Bet you’ve never heard that idea!”

If your reaction is “I have heard that idea. Many times. Everyone has heard that idea” then shame on you. Stop being a dirty birdie.

King is far more influenced by fairytales than is the average author. He doesn’t borrow fairytale stories but he clearly uses their structuring and devices: much of his early work could be described as “morality-based supernatural revenge” (Carrie, Thinner), or “Faustian pact with the Other Side” (Pet Sematary, “Sometimes They Come Back”). In his nonfiction writing, King repeatedly deconstructs fairy tales as models of how to build gripping, effective stories. So maybe a straight fairytale will turn out to be one of the five or six things he does really well. Let’s see!

Fairy Tale opens strong. A young man named Charlie McGee Reade (who, in a bold stroke of avant-garde experimentalism from King, is not from Maine) rescues an old man, Howard Bowditch, who lives alone in a creepy house on a hill and has broken his leg. The two strike up a diffident friendship. The old man doesn’t reveal much of his past but seems to be very rich: he pays a large hospital bill with literal nuggets of gold. Soon, the boy suspects that Howard has a passageway to a magical fairytale realm hidden inside his shed (don’t we all?)

This old-man-young-man relationship is masterfully drawn. Howard comes alive as a cantankerous grump, as does Charlie as a reformed bully (and borderline juvenile delinquent) with anger management issues. How did he become “reformed”? Because one day, he had a realization. Why am doing this? This is not who I am. This tiny moment, barely a sentence on the page, froze me in place. I once had a similar moment in my own life. This is not me. I’d never seen it depicted in a book before.

Other scenes, like Charlie’s alcoholic dad, and Mr Bowditch in the hospital, are raw and powerful. Every detail is well-chosen, and feels true to life. King writes excellently when he writes what he knows.

But then Charlie leaves the real world and enters the fairy realm through the tunnel in Mr Bowditch’s shed. The book becomes a chore. The pace, already slow, becomes torturous. A pattern asserts itself where Charlie meets some weird person, has some weird interactions, receives some exposition so the plot can creak forward a little, and so on. This goes on for an incredibly long time. Fairy tales are brief and light for a reason: it’s difficult to spend a long period of time in a fantasy world without subjecting it to logical scrutiny. I started to look at the gigantic sheaf of pages remaining in the book with mounting concern.

King’s mythical faux-Scandinavian setting is largely cribbed from movies—The Wizard of Oz is a far more palpable influence than the Brothers Grimm—and isn’t that interesting. The fantasy land of Empis never seems real. “Of course it can’t, it’s a fantasy world.” No. Tolkien’s Middle Earth seems real. So does CS Lewis’s Narnia (more so in the later books than in the first). So what’s different here? Well, Empis feels small. Nearly everyone Charlie meets in his quest is someone important: they’re either an exiled prince or princess, an agent of the enemy, or a person of clear signifance to the story. Imagine walking down a street in America, and the first people you see are Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley, and Martin Luther King Jr. You wouldn’t feel like you’re in America, but in a theme park version of America. Fairy Tale has the same quality.

Yes, the first Narnia book also has the “hero randomly meets the most important person in the land” trope. But later books stretch out Narnia’s horizons and add more detail. We soon get the sense that it’s a real place with a thousand years of history bubbling beneath its skin: wars, politics, alliances. And Middle Earth is fully-formed and believable from the first page of The Hobbit. By contrast, Empis never shakes the feel that it’s an incestuous little toyland with a couple dozen people in it. It’s transparently fake. We do not care much about what happens to it.

The haunted, mythic city of Lilimar initially proves an effective setting change. But the endless scenes in the dungeon take on a tedium of a D&D campaign where nobody will jog the damn story along. The villains and monsters are more idiotic than scary. Every challenge gets literalized in a really annoying way, with Charlie figuring out his enemy’s “weakness”, like they’re bosses in a videogame.

Charlie’s hair starts to change. Once brown, it becomes blond. His eyes turn blue. He’s now a Disney Prince, a dashing Aryan ubermensch. This breaks the first rule of fairytales: they must never be aware that they are fairytales. King’s frequent references to Rumpelstiltskin (as well as his own work—I noticed Cujo and The Dark Tower) make things seem even more fake. Charlie is obviously being selected by this land (through some obscure logic that starts with “writer’s” and ends in “convenience”) as its hero and champion. Yet Charlie doesn’t have much of a personal stake in this fake world, or the Gallien dynasty. His one motive is to find some artifact of eternal youth to save his dog. He is forever an outsider, and his outsiderness locks us out of the story, in turn.

But there’s a lot of stuff I like. The characters are well done and believable. All of the stuff set in the real world is fascinating. There’s a subtle twist at the end that (despite being arbitrary) causes you to rethink many things that happened earlier. But whenever magic enters the story, it ruins it, making it perversely unmagical. Can King write this kind of story? No, he cannot. May he not write another.

* Want an example? Here’s the foreword of the expanded version of The Stand, with emphasis (and edits for length) by me.

If all of the story is there, one might ask, then why bother? Isn’t it indulgence after all? It better not be; if it is, then I have spent a large portion of my life wasting my time. As it happens, I think that in really good stories, the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. If that were not so, the following would be a perfectly acceptable version of “Hansel and Gretel”:

Hansel and Gretel were two children with a nice father and a nice mother. The nice mother died, and the father married a bitch. The bitch wanted the kids out of the way so she’d have more money to spend on herself. She bullied her spineless, soft-headed hubby into taking Hansel and Gretel into the woods and killing them. The kids’ father relented at the last moment, allowing them to live so they could starve to death in the woods instead of dying quickly and mercifully at the blade of his knife. While they were wandering around, they found a house made out of candy. It was owned by a witch who was into cannibalism. She locked them up and told them that when they were good and fat, she was going to eat them. But the kids got the best of her. Hansel shoved her into her own oven. They found the witch’s treasure, and they must have found a map, too, because they eventually arrived home again. When they got there, Dad gave the bitch the boot and they lived happily ever after. The End.

I don’t know what you think, but for me, that version’s a loser. The story is there, but it’s not elegant. It’s like a Cadillac with the chrome stripped off and the paint sanded down to dull metal. It goes somewhere, but it ain’t, you know, boss.

[..] Returning to “Hansel and Gretel” for just a moment, you may remember that the wicked stepmother demands that her husband bring her the hearts of the children as proof that the hapless woodcutter has done as she has ordered.

The woodcutter demonstrates one dim vestige of intelligence by bringing her the hearts of two rabbits. Or take the famous trail of breadcrumbs Hansel leaves behind, so he and his sister can find their way back. Thinking dude! But when he attempts to follow the backtrail, he finds that the birds have eaten it. Neither of these bits are strictly essential to the plot, but in another way they make the plot they are great and magical bits of storytelling. They change what could have been a dull piece of work into a tale which has charmed and terrified readers for over a hundred years.

That’s well put. It reminds me of something Barthes calls L’effet de réel: the inclusion of a small, seemingly irrelevant detail that is merely there “because that’s the way it really happened and so it has to be noted as such”. Stories will never be reality, but the Effect of the Real explains how they seem to be reality.

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This movie’s soul has two wolves inside it. One is called Larry, the other is called Karl. Larry has bedroom eyes and a body built for sin; Karl is packing 8.5 inches of lupine cock (uncut) and goes “yyyip-yip owo :3” when mounted. I’m not writing these words. You’re imagining them. Stop flushing your Haldol, fool. Don’t you want to get better?

Let’s start the review again. The Brave Little Toaster is the chimerical fusion of two incompatible ideas:

Idea 1: make a bland, inoffensive kid film. A plucky band of household appliances (a toaster, vacuum cleaner, radio, desk lamp, and electric blanket) lose their owner and journey to the big city to find him. Along the way, they have thrilling (but not TOO thrilling!!) adventures, learn a valuable lesson about friendship or teamwork or some shit, and things end happily: with licensed toys and merchandise flying off the shelves and key executives cashing in their stock options. Ka-ching!

Idea 2: make a borderline horror film that explores Blade Runnerish themes of age, change, obsolescence, and mortality, while commenting on rampant consumerism at the height of the Reagan era.

I doubt I’m kicking a hornet nest by calling Idea #2 the more interesting of the two. But the thing about The Brave Little Toaster is its abrupt tonal shifts, the grinding edges, and the way its moods clash. Or rather, don’t clash. The incongruity works, the dark and light sides reinforce each other, the kiddie stuff allows the serious moments to punch harder and cut deeper. A consistently dark movie like Watership Down can be adjusted to, but here, the movie repeatedly tricks you into lowering your guard, just so it can shank you in the proverbial prison shower.

It has some surprisingly intense scenes (a demonic clown, a bog that sucks the characters to certain doom, a Mengelian mad scientist dungeon…), and they burst out of nowhere, like cop cars when you’re doing 83 in an 80 zone. In one scene, cute household appliances clean a house while grooving to “Tutti Frutti”. In the next, a Phil Hartman-voiced air-conditioning unit commits suicide (“IT’S MY FUUNCTIOONNN!!!”) because he can’t stand being stuck in a wall all day. The constant whiplash is viciously effective.

The Brave Little Toaster received limited release in 1987. It earned jack dollars and shit cents at the box office but left a mark inside the animation trade itself. Many of its artists would later work at Disney, Pixar, and Warner Brothers, and its fingerprints are evident in Beauty and the Beast‘s singing crockery, The Little Mermaid‘s off-Broadway musical stylings, and even in something like Henry Selick’s Coraline. It’s Brian Eno’s “10,000 people bought the album and all of them started a band the next day” apothegm in action. For Toy Story fans, this movie is the Dead Sea Scrolls (“Wow, so that’s where John Lasseter got the idea for Sid’s room!”)

Adapted from a children’s story, it’s also a prosecution brief against 80s culture. Or, more particularly, the yuppified “high eighties”, when trade liberalization and Reagonomics led to an explosion of strip malls selling foreign-made consumer goods to Middle America. This pumped the gas on a culture of disposability: once you repaired things when they broke, now you threw them out. The Brave Little Toaster pointedly contrasts good ol’ fashioned American appliances (like the toaster) with weird, swanky hi-tech electronics (who are nasty and hostile toward the main characters); symbolic of how America has lost its way. This is a cartoon Donald Trump would appreciate (assuming he didn’t fast-forward to see if there’s any fight scenes or nudity, which he probably would.)

(Side note: the “Worthless” cars getting smashed at the junkyard are nearly all American. We see Fords, Corvettes, Cadillacs, and Lincolns, plus a British Aston Martin and a German Porsche, but there are no Toyotas, Hondas, or Nissans. About 25% of cars on American roads in 1987 were manufactured by Asian companies, and I don’t think this omission was meaningless or accidental.)

This anti-materialism theme goes down a dark road. The toaster and his friends arrive in the city, still seeking their owner (who they call “Master”, like cultists. You hear the capital M in their voices). The city is eerily empty. There’s a corporate logo on every building and not a human in sight.

They find the Master’s apartment and make a terrible discovery: they’ve been replaced by new and better versions of themselves. The Master never lost them, he didn’t want them. Who needs a transistor radio when you have a computer? How can a dinky little toaster compete with an electric oven? It’s a wrenching moment that bares the film’s thematic heart: the appliances were loyal to their owner…but he felt no loyalty in return. To them, he’s Master. To him, they’re garbage.

A typical Letterboxd user would write something like “hurr hurr, this film promotes hoarding, also the radio is a GAY ICON #slay #werk” while scratching the surgical threads the doctor stitched above their prefrontal cortex. But I don’t think that’s true, or the point. The movie’s not saying you should hang onto junk or never throw things out. It’s about something tragically universal: devoting your life to someone or something…only to get tossed in the trash once you’re no longer needed. Forget the toaster: this same story could be told about a dog and its master; or a woman and her husband; or a worker and his job; or a soldier and his nation; or a believer and his god. Sometimes what looks like loyalty is actually just exploitation.

I watched Blade Runner and was struck by the sense that you could flip Roy Batty from villain to hero with about one or two script edits. His behavior is perfectly reasonable. Betrayed and denied the possibility of life, wouldn’t you do what he does? Hunt down the ones responsible? See how high the body pile gets before they gun you down? This is kiddie Blade Runner, told from Batty’s POV.

Then comes the legendary “Worthless” scene, which is not scary, just hopeless and nihilistic, driving a knife into the audience’s heart as deep as a knife will go. Toaster and friends are put in the trash, and then hauled to a junkyard where towering slag-like heaps of scrap rise through the filthy air, like the spoor of an titan that eats and shits metal. They watch helplessly while cars get crushed into tiny cubes under a bruise-black sky, while a gigantic crane magnet ominously hovers overhead, ready to catch runners. The junkyard has the air of a Nazi extermination camp, or maybe hell. The worst part? This is where they think they belong. Imagine deserving to be at Auschwitz.

“Worthless” feels almost gratuitously cruel, but it’s masterfully written and directed. The cars (which receive only a few seconds of screentime each) are deftly characterized, and respond to their plight in unique ways. One begs; another is in denial that she’s junk (“I just can’t seem to get started!” she says, as her wheels fall off); some are scared; most are just resigned. They tell little sad stories about their pasts (one raced in the Indianapolis 500, another took a man to a graveyard) that we never hear the ending to, because the crusher pounds them into dust. Who cares about their stories? They’re just trash.

Each rewatch reveals a new (and painful) detail that I didn’t see before. Like how one car (a Chevrolet 3100) uses a last spurt of ignition to drive forward on the conveyor belt, into the crusher’s teeth. He can’t escape, so he chooses death on his own terms. This is ugly but brilliant filmmaking: no scene in any Disney movie (not Bambi, not Fantasia, not The Black Cauldron) is as fearless.

I don’t want to make The Brave Little Toaster sound like Come and See. The sad crapsack stuff is only a fraction of the whole. It stands out because the rest of the film is so light.

Yes, obviously the toaster escapes the junkyard. And obviously the Master’s apparent betrayal gets rugpulled. And obviously some characters who we thought were dead come back to life. Things end happily, because they must. But children don’t trust happy endings, do they? I never saw this as a kid but can imagine my reaction. “Worthless” is the real ending. The phony happy stuff is non-canon boilerplate, tacked on against the director’s will. Although I wouldn’t have used those exact words, it’s what I would have felt. Kids believe in hell for a long time after they’ve stopped believing in heaven.

A fair amount of The Brave Little Toaster is aimed about two feet over the head of the average preschooler. The radio keeps up a steady barrage of dated references (“north by northwest! Watch out for low-flying airplanes!”), and they even slip in an adult joke or two. I’m guessing an animator (at some point in the process) sharpened his pencil and said “fuck it, this is gonna bomb. I’ll put titties in this children’s film and let Jesus take the wheel.” Think Don Bluth was gangsta for putting bird cleavage into his films? This movie has tape deck cleavage. Your move, Don.

At one point, a TV announcer thoughtlessly grabs some papers from a cabinet. It’s porn.

The lighter scenes generally have a dark and jagged crack running through them. You notice it, or you don’t. Near the movie’s midpoint there’s an inane sequence where frogs and a fish and a bird fight over a worm. It’s a decent bit of Disney-inspired nonsense (with synchronized frogs swan-diving into a pond), but shining through is the fact that they’re trying to kill a worm. Nature remains red in tooth and claw. Again, the childlike presentation elevates the (surprisingly mature) themes like a springboard.

Van Dyke Parks contributes four original songs. I don’t know if they’re great songs in the Alan Menken sense, but they’re weird and special. I haven’t heard music like this in any animated movie before.

“City of Lights” is the uplifting “we’re off to see the wizard” tune, but it’s written and sung with a eerie flat affect. A tone of insincerity bleeds through, like they already know the journey will end at a junkyard. “B-Movie” is a hilariously morbid disco tune, full of cod-Gothic flourishes. “Worthless” is an incongrously upbeat pop-country number, with a sour piano ostinato swilling in the mix like curdled milk (a guy on UltimateGuitar says it’s Em7, but I’m away from a piano and can’t confirm this). “Cutting Edge” is a deliberately revolting mashup of Oingo Boingo, Devo, and Gary Numan, where the hi-tech devices strut their stuff (although they certainly aren’t cutting edge anymore. Even their visual look is tacky and ugly and “80s kitsch”, as opposed to the understated, timeless designs of the main cast). It’s brilliantly (in)appropriate songwriting that elevates the film.

I’ve said many good things about The Brave Little Toaster. I like the tone, music, subject matter, directing, and some of the writing.

What don’t I like? Sadly, literally everything I haven’t mentioned: characterization, acting, storytelling, and animation.

Animation: it looks like a cheap TV show. The drawings are clean and bright but have no depth or contour: characters are illustrated with a single tone and a shadow. The opening shot is an ugly UPA-style painting that looks nothing like the rest of the film. The film basically didn’t have a budget, and this is visible on every frame. One of life’s tragedies is that animation lives or dies on money. It doesn’t matter how well-written or directed or acted a movie is: you need a team of skilled artists cranking out high-quality footage, or the results will simply be unwatchable. This didn’t have the resources it needed. You’re watching an interesting idea slowly starve to nothing on the screen.

A tiny budget is compounded by bad decisions. How do you make a household appliance emotive and sympathetic? The dubious solution the character designers arrived at was “slap a human face on everything”. Even the junkyard magnet gets a SCARY FROWNY FACE, just in case you didn’t realize he’s bad. Fuck off.

Characters: terrible. The film barely has any. The vacuum cleaner and radio possess a single personality trait apiece (a grump, and an unbearable chatterbox). The toaster, blanket, lamp, and human have no personalities. They are blanks.

Toy Story lacks Toaster’s audacity and emotional weight, but as far as character development goes, it tattoos a swastika on its chest and curb-stomps this film’s face into the pavement. Woody and Buzz and Sid are obviously great, but even minor characters like Rex and Hamm are carefully-written, with personalities and inner lives. You can visualize Mr Potato Head in a arbitrary situation (maybe he’s in a boat, and it’s sprung a leak!), and imagine exactly what he’d say and do (he’d get flustered and cranky, would complain a lot, would try to plug the leak with a detached body part and fail humorously, etc). What would the toaster do in that same situation? I don’t know. Be generically spunky and heroic? There’s just nothing there.

Acting: SNL actors and Z-list randos offer an artisanal blend of dated comedy impressions and annoying noises. The blanket’s voice is as insufferable as warm rhinoceros piss dribbled down the back of my neck. Where’s Judith Barsi when you need her? (My immediate thought was “dead” and I felt like an asshole. Then I checked Wikipedia: her dad killed her in ’88. I still feel like an asshole.)

The dialog jags on the ear, like bad improv. At 3:10 the desk lamp says “can’t even hear your voice around here with all the racket around here!” Was he supposed to say “around here” twice? At 26:10 the vacuum says “who’s idea was it to come this way anyway?” Was he supposed to say “way” two times in four syllables? Phil Hartman is the film’s best actor, but the writers murder him fifteen minutes in (a typical rookie mistake).

Writing: hit or miss. I have little time or love for Joss Whedon, but scriptwriting is another area where Toy Story is superior. Here’s a quote from John Kricfalusi (sadly, it’s not “I plead guilty”, spoken in the Superior Court of California).

Most Disney movies are derived from 4 or 5 page fairy tale stories, and then filled up with 65 more pages worth of junk that has nothing to do with the stories: naked flying babies, animals that wipe dishes clean with their butts, long sneezing sequences, big chunks of insufferable pathos and more.

That’s a good description of The Brave Little Toaster, too. Stuff constantly happens, but it’s tangential fluff that doesn’t connect with the plot or deepen our understanding of the characters. It’s just there.

The endless bickering among the main cast is pointless, wastes time, and never goes anywhere interesting. A subplot involving a car battery (which the devices must periodically plug into to recharge themselves) is dropped from the film: they lose the battery but continue on without apparent difficulties, apparently now powered by Satan. The sequence at the parts store is padded with useless shots of the guy eating marshmallows and making smoothies.

And while I don’t deserve a medal for noticing logic holes in the The Brave Little Toaster universe, it truly doesn’t make sense. Why is there nobody in the city? Well, so that the appliances can hop around freely without attracting a crowd (or an exorcist). But what’s the in-universe explanation? There isn’t one. It’s just pure writer’s convenience.

The film adheres to the Toy Story rule: appliances can move around, but must freeze when humans are present. But the junkyard magnet is obviously autonomous and doesn’t obey the rule (it reveals its sentience to Rob while trying to crush him to death for no reason). Maybe there’s a psychopathic human crane operator somewhere that we don’t see. But doesn’t Rob have questions about why he almost died? Does he complain to the owner of the junkyard? Who owns the junkyard, anyway, and is he aware that it’s being run by a demonically possessed crane?

The script is studded with “placeholder jokes”—tossed-off gags that a writer doubtless intended to replace with a funnier one but failed to ever actually do so. Some trigger a near-decapitatory amount of head-scratching. The radio pleads with the toaster: “You gotta hide me! I’ll do anything! Bread? I can get you bread! Mountains of hot cross buns!” Why hot cross buns? Out of all bread-related products, why mention one that can’t fit inside a toaster? The TV announcer says “A bargain in every buck! A buck in every pocket! A pocket in every trouser!” What does he mean? What’s a “trouser”? The radio says “We’re trapped here like rats! Small little rats with no hair and one leg!” Are rats noted for being easily trapped? That’s not my experience with them. And if the rats are small, isn’t calling them little redundant, or are there small huge rats? And “no hair” suggests he’s subverting the metaphor by making it literal, which is a common thing for jokes to do (“He was as tall as a 6′3″ tree”)…but then the “one leg” detail makes no sense. Desk Lamp has one leg, but everyone else has four legs (Toaster, Radio), wheels (Vacuum), or is a blanket (Blanket).

At final analysis, they’re appliances, or tools to be used. Despite the cute faces, utility is what defines them. They don’t walk on their legs even when they have them: they awkwardly hop around, because humans designed them to be sturdy and structurally rigid, not flexible. Everything they do is awkwardly expressed through a mask of man’s design. That’s the weird thing about “toy movies”—how can a thing have life when it’s so clearly designed to be dead? Like Sartre said: “A grocer who dreams is offensive to the buyer, because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer.”

I think I’ll remember The Brave Little Toaster, although not always for good reasons. It has an interesting ragged quality to it, like metal that hasn’t been buffed smooth. Some parts pierce the surface of the mind, others remain out of tantalizingly out of reach. Maybe it’d be best if I didn’t overthink it. It’s a film for children. Nothing more. It encodes a noxious pro-hoarding message and the radio is a gay icon and it has two wolves fighting inside it.