“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!”
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.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Animated Features
- Character Arc
- Road Trip
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”
- Endlessly clever and creative imagery
Yes. As Chuck Jones’ only animated feature, all film fanatics will certainly want to check this one out.