Phantom Tollbooth, The (1970)

“Everybody says it’s such a big, wonderful world. How come it seems so small, and kind of empty? There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it!”

Synopsis:
An apathetic boy named Milo (Butch Patrick) travels through a mysterious tollbooth to a magical world, where the kings of Digitopolis and Dictionopolis argue over whether numbers or words are more important. During his journey, Milo finally begins to understand the importance of staying active and engaged in life.

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Review:
Based on Norton Juster’s classic children’s novel, The Phantom Tollbooth was the first and only feature-length film by famed Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones (creator of Pepe le Pew and Wile E. Coyote); unfortunately, however, it doesn’t live up to Jones’ immense talents. While Juster’s goal — encouraging kids to take initiative in their own learning, and to explore the fascinating worlds of numbers and words — is a noble one, it comes across as didactic rather than exciting in the film. Unlike (just for instance) Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we never feel a true sense of urgency about Milo’s predicament — indeed, he’s never in any real trouble. Not helping matters any are the insipid, instantly forgettable songs sprinkled sporadically throughout the film; they would definitely have been best left out.

With that said, most adults will watch this film for its animation rather than its story or songs — and, despite some noticeable missteps (Tick Tock the Watch Dog is particularly disappointing), there are many creative sequences. I especially like Jones’ visualization of The Doldrums, and his many amusing wordplays. Also enjoyable are the live action sequences which bookend the film; Butch Patrick is a natural, believable child actor, and his bodily presence is missed once the animation begins. Ultimately, however, The Phantom Tollbooth remains more of a curiosity than a classic, and is noteworthy primarily for its historical importance as Jones’ only feature film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Butch Patrick as the live-action Milo
  • Countless creative visualizations of verbal puns (a “senses taker”, “eating one’s words”, etc.)
  • The animated “doldroms”
  • A watch “melting” in a Dali-esque fashion over a cliff

Must See?
Yes. As Chuck Jones’ only animated feature, all film fanatics will certainly want to check this one out.

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One Response to “Phantom Tollbooth, The (1970)”

  1. A must.

    I have to say this film thoroughly charms me – and I wouldn’t say I’m all that partial to children’s films, overall.

    Though it’s understandable that a comparison could be made to something like ‘The Wizard of Oz’, I don’t think this film sets out to do quite the same thing (hence, it doesn’t seem to me as important that “we never feel a true sense of urgency about Milo’s predicament”). To me, the film is closer in feel to Dr. Seuss than L. Frank Baum. Though it doesn’t have Seussian patter throughout, it often seems to retain similar ideology (i.e., statements like, “That’s why people don’t seem to care anymore which words they use, as long as they use lots of them.”)

    Admittedly, I’m a HUGE Chuck Jones fan – so I see his touch all over the place here, and much of it just makes me smile and chuckle. I so admire his attention not only to overall scope in visuals but also to extremely tiny details.

    And the songs don’t bother me – I actually find them generally witty and to the point structurally. (I’m certainly glad the Doldrums song comes early; it’s very clever but, if anything, it’s perhaps too effective a song – as it puts the audience dangerously close to slumber.) And I feel I’m tough on scores for children’s films. Compare the ‘Phantom’ score with the one for ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, for example; now THERE’S an unfortunate and forgettable batch of tunes.

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