May 6, 2009

The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

THERE’S NO DENYING that Chuck Jones was a legendary animator and director. His work on Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes shorts such as Duck Amuck and Feed The Kitty are timeless and immortal.

That being said, I’m not a big fan of his later work (How The Grinch Stole Christmas! notwithstanding). To be blunt: As Jones got older, he got soft. He went from classic, riotous Looney Tunes to tepid Tom & Jerry cartoons in the ‘60s to lame Looney Tunes movies in the early ‘80s.

In between those two examples of softness came Jones’ full-length feature film for MGM, The Phantom Tollbooth. Based on the book by Norton Juster, it’s a combination of live action and animation (Jones directed the animated sequences; the live-action portions that bookend the film were directed by Abe Levitow).

• Milo (The MunstersButch Patrick) is a bored latchkey kid – bored with school, bored with home, bored with everything. While he’s home alone complaining to a friend on the phone, a gigantic package suddenly drops into his room – turning into a small car and tollbooth that take him into an animated fantasy world, and turning him into a cartoon as well.
• In his animated travels, Milo pairs up with Tock – a talking, literal watchdog (he’s got a ticker where his tummy should be) and encounters the warring worlds of Digitopolis and Dictionopolis, who each think they are more important than the other. He also encounters places like Expectation, the Doldrums, and other literal animal creations such as a spelling bee and a humbug.
• From there, the plot has something to do with Milo and Tock having to restore order to the land by rescuing the princesses Rhyme and Reason, who are being held captive in a castle in the air.

The Phantom Tollbooth’s IMDb page notes that “the film was actually made in 1968, but due to MGM's financial problems and frequently changing management, the film was not heavily promoted. When it was released in 1970, it was not a box office success.” Well, the movie has an additional problem that hindered its success besides underpromotion: It’s frankly not that great.
Tollbooth starts off quite funny, but midway it downshifts from funny to whimsical to an early attempt at “edutainment.” For better or worse (mostly the latter), it manages to be educational and nonsensical at the same time.
The movie ends up alienating its two core audiences: It’s too talky and terminology-laden for younger kids, and older kids and adults will be put off by the heavy thinking required. I mean, an hour of educational programming is one thing; a full-length movie about words, grammar, and numbers is another.
• Much like other animated films of it era (see The Jungle Book), Tollbooth’s pacing makes large portions of it tough to sit through.
On the plus side, the 2-D animation was both nostalgic and refreshing, tinged with a hint of ‘60s trippiness. And Milo is illustrated in a way that provides a window into how Jones would animate young children in work such as Rikki-Tikki Tavi (1975).

Ultimately, The Phantom Tollbooth is (barely) worth watching for its uniqueness, and simply to say you saw it. As far how or where to see it…
• Maybe check out the trailer first to see if the movie interests you
• See if it airs again on Turner Classic Movies (where Dash and I saw it)
• Buy a VHS or bootleg DVD copy on eBay (the film is not officially available on DVD)

However, if you’re old enough to remember The Phantom Tollbooth fondly because you saw it as a kid, don’t watch it as an adult expecting to relive a magical childhood memory. You may be disappointed.

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5).

What did Dash think?
Dash chuckled and laughed at a pretty regular pace, though he was asleep at the 70-minute mark (it's a 90-minute film). I’m not sure if it was because we watched it on a Friday night (a la Valiant) or because the movie bored him. I’d say it was a combination of both.

Will your kids like it?
I think kids today will have the same attention-span issues with Phantom Tollbooth as Dash did: They’ll be enthralled at the beginning with the switch from live-action to animation, but the stodgy pace and classroom-esque dialogue will have them shifting in their seats, if they haven’t already left them.

Will your FilmMother like it?
Maybe the learning lessons will be intriguing to her, but as pure entertainment this movie bursts out of the gate then lurches toward a finish. Like I said earlier, if she revisits it because of fond memories watching it as a child, she may be disappointed.

"Pardon me...which way to the credits?"

The Phantom Tollbooth
* Directors: Chuck Jones, Abe Levitow
* Screenwriters: Chuck Jones, Sam Rosen
* Stars: Butch Patrick, voices of June Foray, Daws Butler, Shepard Menken, Mel Blanc
* MPAA Rating: G

Buy this movie for less at >>


Craig Kausen said...

Hello FilmFather,

My name is Craig Kausen and I am Chuck Jones' grandson. Thank you very much for showcasing and reviewing The Phantom Tollbooth, even if it wasn't your favorite Jones production.

I understand your comments about its length and depth. It is not the type of film that you want to assume is going to keep a 5 or an 8 year old glued to the screen for 90 straight minutes due to its fast timing or slap stick humor that is prevalent in targeted film making these days.

I will confess that I slumbered a bit at about the 70 minute mark of The Lion King on my first viewinng, and went on to appreciate it more and more upon repeat viewings as familiarity with the characters and openness to the multiple levels of communication embedded into it. It quickly became one of my favorites.

As with most of Chuck's films, he laced the Phantom Tollbooth with multi-leveled messages that take multiple viewings to appreciate.

Chuck was quite vocal that he nor his films ever talked down to children. He knew that children understand, even they are unable to articulate it, much more than most of us give credit for.

I remember the first time I saw it, it debuted with an H.R. Puff 'n Stuff movie. I was 7. It was one of my first journeys to Los Angeles for a 'premiere'. I know I felt more comfortable with the Puff 'n stuff at the time, although the magic of the animation in Phantom was and still is incredible on the big screen.

It probably took quite a few times and certainly a number of years before I started to garner a better appreciation for the entire film as a great work of art.

Again, thank you for reviewing it.

I look forward to more of your reviews.

Craig Kausen

Chuck Jones Companies

FilmFather said...


I'm flattered and humbled that you stopped by and commented on my review.

Thanks for your insight into Chuck's working style and the beliefs he put into his projects -- especially his emphasis on not talking down to kids. Frankly, I think we could use a little more of his approach in today's children's films and TV programs.

I hear what you're saying about kids' movies of earlier eras not matching the speed of delivery of today's kid flicks. However, even the targeted filmmaking of kids' films today can produce quite different results. My go-to example has been the PG-rated, ADD-style approach to animated films by DreamWorks (whose films, except for Horton Hears a Who!, won't stand the test of time) compared to the amazing craftwork that Pixar puts behind its films -- paying attention to story and character development, as well as unparalleled animation, that will eventually make their movies as timeless as the classic works of Warner Bros. and Disney.

If my son and I get the chance to watch The Phantom Tollbooth again, I'll make sure we do it with fresh heads and open minds. Perhaps it will grow on us the way it did on you.

aka FilmFather

James said...

Hey Film Father. I am in no way related to Chuck Jones, but thought your reveiw was great anyway. It's great to be reminded of those older fims that would otherwise be lost amongst today's onslaught of kid films.

Keith said...

Hey there. Thanks for sharing this review with us. I don't think I had ever even heard of this one. I quite enjoyed learning more about it. Have a great week.

Kathy B. said...

Whoa! A visit from Craig Kausen!!
How cool is that !!??!!
Loved the review ~ never saw the film before but I'm thinking Nathan and I should watch it.

Jim @ said...

Wow, what a great post and great comments. I had to do some researching, because while I was a fan of cartoons growing up I have to admit I am not too knowledgeable about the talent that was behind them. Really cool!

Gemma said...

My work here is done, Daniel-san. You have a great site and quite the following. I will watch in silent admiration from now on. Oh, and btw, WAY TO GO, FILMFATHER!!!

Ruth said...

I'm really surprised that everyone thinks this movie is crap. As a child i loved it for the fun animation, songs and even if i didn't know what the word forthcoming or the Fibonacci Series was I could look past that and still be really into the the story. As an adult I love that it is educational and that I can explain the things kids don't understand, but want to know, the fun animation, the characters, the adventure and the songs. It's great all around. Even though I have ADHD, I could not only sit through the whole thing but watch it again and again.


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