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 Munsters’ Butch 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).
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.
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
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