The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

Posted by on Dec 29, 2011 in Welcome to Our World | 0 comments


Disclaimer: May convince children that they can drive a car or orchestrate a sunrise.

Norton Juster’s 1961 novel, The Phantom Tollbooth, has long been revered as a classic of children’s literature. This being the case, filmmakers quickly jumped at the opportunity of making a feature-length film based on it. But many were skeptical of the idea (including Juster, added to which is the fact that MGM’s animation studio folded after this film’s release), because the book is a strange sort of intellectual fairytale, packed with puns, literary allusions, and chaotic adventures (not your typical family film). I don’t know about you, but when I hear about intellectual chaos, Looney Tunes comes to mind. And that is exactly what came to be, as Tunes director Chuck Jones collaborated with Dave Monahan (he did the live action stuff) on a mixed animation adaptation with voice artist Mel Blanc providing many of the characters’ speech.

The movie sets the tone of thePhantom3 protagonist immediately (there’s no time to screw around, there’s anarchy to get to). An establishing shot gives us a cityscape, which focuses down to a school, then to a single desk inside the school, where we hear an overflow of information inside one student’s brain. This is Milo (The Munsters’ Butch Patrick) and, when the bell rings, a credits sequence unveils the young boy in a series of long shots, which isolate and belittle him against the big city. A cheesy song, What’s Going to Happen to Milo?, plays while hectic city residents hustle and bustle, signs pop up everywhere, lights flash, and machinery scrolls past, all the while the sullen Milo stares at the ground mindlessly. When he finally gets home, we learn that Milo is bored with, well, everything. Conveniently enough, a large present with a tollbooth inside appears in his bedroom. The tollbooth takes Milo into a strange, warring land, where everything (including himself) is a cartoon.

The place is the Kingdom of Wisdom, a diverse land straight out of Yellow Submarine or Salvador Dali’s mind (in fact, the film lifts one of his paintings for a setting). The kingdom, however, has seen better days since it split into Dictionopolis and Digitopolis because the sibling kings believe their respective units (letters and numbers) are supreme. As Milo explores the world, he passes through the Land of Expectations and gets distracted in the Doldrums, where it is illegal to think and no one gives orders. A watch dog named Tock rescues Milo from the lazy Lethargians just in time, and becomes his sidekick for the rest of the adventure. As they continue through the warring lands and Mountains of Ignorance between, they learn that only the princesses of Rhyme and Reason can save the day, so they venture to the Castle in the Air, where they live.

Each place and the characters inside teach Milo a valuable life lesson, the most prominent of which is: there’s nothing you can’t do if you think and use words and numbers correctly. It’s hard to believe he learns anything, however, considering many of the people resemble Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. There’s the Spelling Bee and Hum Bug, Not-So-Wicked Which, Senses Taker, Terrible Trivium, Demon of Insincerity, Whether Man (Daws Butler), Officer Short Shrift, and many more. I’m guessing the kids’ favorites in the movie will be Chromo the Great, who conducts weather and sunsets, and Dr. Dischord, who specializes in dissonance and loud noises. The doctor also has the most appealing song in the movie, which comes as he smashes bottles of various sounds. Norman Gimbel, Paul Vance, and Lee Pockriss wrote all of the songs, many of which haven’t aged particularly well.

The story is wickedly clever, with a sense of humor like Dr. Seuss, and has many portions that are morally educational, assuming that kids get the hints (which are laid on plenty thick for adults). The book and this respectable adaptation, however, are both unfortunately hard to track down (the movie still hasn’t made it to DVD).

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