The Phantom Tollbooth is a weird kind of failure, a film effort that is inventive and energetic, yet somehow not up to its own ambition. But it doesn’t fail for want of trying.
Based on Norton Juster’s surreal and allegorical 1960 kids’ novel, The Phantom Tollbooth (originally and lovingly illustrated by the legendary cartoonist Jules Feiffer – Juster’s housemate) is a story about literacy, curiosity, and a wonder for knowledge. It’s hard not to like.
An inexplicably bored kid, Milo (played and voiced by Butch Patrick, a veteran child actor who did extraordinary work for decades but is still best known as “Eddie Muster”), is mysteriously gifted a strange box, which contains a model tollbooth and a car.
Figure 1a: Milo passes through the Phantom Tollbooth….
Figure 1b: …and becomes a cartoon character, showing the ambition of the film’s mix of animation with live-action film, at least early on….
Breaking him out of the energetic tar pits of his imagination, he climbs into the vehicle, passes through the tollbooth and finds himself in “The Lands Beyond”, a metaphor-rich world of letters, numbers, and knowledge, but one where the rules of logic, language, and mathematics are at war. He is joined in his journey by the thoughtful watchdog Tock (veteran voice actor Larry Thor), who guards his charge with effort, as well the Humbug (radio actor, Les Tremayne), a sort of anti-hero, whose selfish urges are put to the service of the quest.
As it turns out, the kingdom of words, Dictionopolis, is at war with that of numbers, Digitopolis, even though (or because) the two are governed by brother Kings – both voiced by Hans Conried (a seasoned actor of a thousand performances, who I first recall as “Wrongway Feldman” on Gilligan’s Island). The reconciliation of the two kingdoms depends on the rescue or Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason from “The Castle in the Air”, where the two have been prisoners for years. Words hate numbers, and vice versa. Enter, a child who can only learn to love them both.
Figure 2: Milo is slowly lured into The Doldrums, which I can’t help but think simply looks like a good afternoon off with some reefer or a bottle of scotch.
The plot rests on Milo’s dawning understanding of the importance of knowledge, his growing rejection of his own dazed ignorance, and his effort to solve the impasse that grips this allegorical world. In the last moment, he throws a javelin-pencil of curiosity, ingenuity, and courage, at a monster to push on to victory. Having resolved this Alice-in-Wonderland problem, Milo is returned to San Francisco, and he forever becomes curious, literate, and wise. The worlds of letters and numbers are re-united.
Hmmmm….. It all seems too damn easy.
Intellectual Ambition and its Animated Limits
The story is an especially ambitious one for childrens’ entertainment in its moment, especially if we consider the creative desert into which it entered at the end of the 1960s. This was when Sesame Street was considered a radical enterprise and television made little space for children’s programming, with the exception of a dawning cartoon hours on Saturday morning and the effervescent explosion of creepy clown programs on local television outlets. Before that… only Soupy Sales…
There is a lot to like here. The patter and style of the film is based on wordplay and sometimes cheap puns, which have huge value for parents and children. Milo, having given a flustering introductory oration, is seated at the dinner table at Dictionaopolis and served an unappetizing jumble… a meal made of the mash of his own speech: “I didn’t know I had to eat my own words,” he stumbles. This sort of cleverness is the film at its very best.
Figure 3: Our heroes enter Dictionopolis, a kingdom where letters prevail over numbers. Trouble ahead!
And yet, the movie doesn’t quite gel.
This isn’t because the separate pieces aren’t well arranged, carefully rendered, or lovingly engaged. Rather, it’s because we get successive episodes of earnest cartoons.
In part, this has to do with the strong departures that the movie makes from its literary source. For example, the “Terrible Trivium” is among the most memorable of the book’s villains, though he receives scarce time in this busy movie. His mission is to provide lost souls a huge range of pointless tasks to fill their time, keeping them from things that might matter more. He gives Milo a pair of tweezers to move a mountain and Tock an eyedropper to fill a lake.
But the film allows this encounter, and escape therefrom, to be resolved in perhaps less than two minutes in a film that already seems pretty long. The film eschews many similar resources from the book, and sacrifices the original rhythm and tone of the work.
Figure 4: The Terrible Trivium: whose charge is to distract us from the things that matter with the things that otherwise keep us busy. This guy calls the shots in my world.
This is because the animators and writers were drawing on an older, and more emotionally familiar animation playbook that did not provide the confrontational message that something like Phantom Tollbooth required.
The extent and limits of these achievements come from the top.
Chuck Jones in a New World
Chuck Jones is the lead of the production. His impeccable credentials include being chief visionary (with Mel Blanc, whose voice is heard throughout Phantom Tollbooth) for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. And everywhere in this film, his talents, and his network of voice actors, are on display.
No part of this feels far distant from a Looney Tunes cartoon, as where a Milo uses his own Bugs Bunny-like will to propel his little car from The Doldrums, swamps of ignorance, where its kinetic force comes from imagination and the expression of knowledge.
Figure 5: Chroma, who conducts the sunrise and sunset, feels a lot like a playful parody of Fantasia. Chuck Jones is allowed a lot of creative room in The Phantom Tollbooth, and he takes it.
Similarly, the road that unwinds before Milo and Tock is surreal, Dali-like in logic and flow, and given to abrupt onomatopoeia, as where the “Spelling Bee” arrives as a character with a real stinger, and “The Doldrums” are drawn as a physical miasma.
Most of the film’s attraction to a literate parent is the “I got it” sense that you are following the screenwriter’s simple jokes. These are, I’d say, preferable to the sometimes-cheap double-entendre we hear in contemporary Disney; this makes the average adult viewer feel like they are not entirely wasting their time.
As a result, this cartoon experiment reflects Jones’ vision perfectly. The Phantom Tollbooth carries a literate vibe, a cascade of puns, and an educational will that is hard to beat. The trip into Dictionapolis is littered with clever word play and references that might be lost on a 7-year-old but are clearly intended for parents. Encounters in Digitopolis actually do a little math work, with Jones jousting at work done for Disney’s Donald Duck in Mathmagicland in 1959.
Even so, these efforts feel inadequate to the opportunity. Jones’ world feels less edgy or psychedelic than it ought to be. Though the landscapes are painted as jagged and visionary ones of color, shape, language and number, the film still feels like old animation, a relic of an earlier time, bravely pushed into this era. Visually, the cartoon looks like Bugs Bunny cutting room floor edits.
Figure 6: Princess of Sweet Rhyme and Princess of Pure Reason; the only ones who seem to make any sense in this movie.
Similarly, the movie sounds like Terrytoon’s Deputy Dog. Indeed, most of the voice acting is done by people in the twilight of their careers. The cheesy music doesn’t do the thoughtful themes any favors either. Though it is one that might have been comfortable a decade before, the turgid musical soundtrack feels dated even in its own moment. If you compare this work with that of the impish voice acting and radical music of The Point (1971) only one year later, the effort seems bashful. Indeed, sung by the aging cast, the music hearkens back to an era long before the film.
Rather than a radical entrée to the future, Phantom Tollbooth feels like 1960 hesitantly coming to terms with 1969, rather than 1970 coming to terms with what might come next.
As a result, the Phantom Tollbooth comes across as something of a mismatched encounter between Chuck Jones’ honored traditional animation, from a sturdy and staid animation house, and an ambitious, elusive, and surreal text. Herein lies the problem. The animators aim their creative efforts at this strange landscape while relying on a traditional mode of expression.
To be sure, however, this project has its heart in absolutely the right place. Celebrate language, math, and knowledge. The movies’ final song rings in a new era, calling for a world in which “Sense and Sanity Prevail!”
My experience of the film: Fair.
Chances that Alexander will realistically like this movie: Poor.