Monday, May 27, 2013

The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

          Based on a highbrow children’s book that was originally published in 1961, the (mostly) animated film The Phantom Tollbooth is noteworthy as the only feature directed by the great Chuck Jones. (His classic Looney Tunes include Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, and his beloved TV specials include The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!) Unfortunately, the magic combination of verbal and visual wit that makes Jones’ best short subjects so entertaining failed to materialize for The Phantom Tollbooth. Thanks to the smart source material, as well the careful execution by Jones and his collaborators, the picture is edifying, but it’s also repetitive. The story could easily have been told in an hour or even 45 minutes without losing anything important, so watching the thing drag across 90 minutes becomes a chore. Further, the biggest burden the movie carries is a gooey song score, which is exactly the sort of sentimental excess one rarely found in Jones’ best ’toons. More likely than not, MGM included the music in order to copy Walt Disney’s successful formula, but the numbers in The Phantom Tollbooth never match Disney’s level of quality.
          As for the underlying narrative, it’s clever if perhaps a bit too fanciful and literary for G-rated literary entertainment. In a live-action opening sequence set in modern-day San Francisco, a latchkey kid named Milo (played by Butch Patrick of The Munsters) whines about being bored until a magical tollbooth materializes in his apartment. The tollbooth comes complete with a miniature car. Milo hops into the car and passes through the tollbooth, at which point he becomes a cartoon, as does the whole movie. Cartoon Milo drives his cartoon car through a fantastic realm in which concepts and words are personified literally, so nearly every scene involves a pun or some other play on words.
          The theme of Milo’s adventure is that he needs to learn respect for knowledge, because a stimulated mind is never bored. So, for instance, Milo gets stuck in “the doldrums,” a kind of grimy limbo for people who don’t think; the actual doldrums are personified as gelatinous globs that slink around and speak verrrry sloooowly. Later, Milo ends up in a land of letters and a land of numbers; avoids “the mountains of ignorance”; interacts with such creatures as the Humbug and the Spelling Bee; and eventually clashes with a villain known as “The Terrible Trivial.”
          Some of this material is great, from the elevated dialogue of the Humbug (“A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect”) to the visual gag of cartoon Milo using a giant number “4” as a bow and spelled-out words as arrows. But particularly once the movie transforms into standard fantasy epic during the climax (cartoon Milo and his new friends must rescue princesses in order to restore order to the cartooniverse), The Phantom Tollbooth gets overly plot-driven. To be fair, the filmmakers tackled a huge challenge by building a story around a bored kid—not the most engaging of protagonists—and Patrick doesn’t do the movie any favors. Both in his live-action scenes (at the beginning and end of the film) and in his vocal performance throughout the picture, he’s merely ordinary. Conversely, veteran voice actors including Mel Blanc, Hans Conreid, and June Foray enliven their various roles with typical flair.

 The Phantom Tollbooth: FUNKY


Tommy Ross said...

Thanks Peter for remembering this often overlooked film. I have always had mixed but mostly good feeling about this one. It has it's ups and downs but overall is a fun escape for both Milo and us, I guess the best thing about it being that it's got something we rarely see these days- nice G-rated harmless entertainment. For those curious, besides ordering on Amazon, you can also watch the whole thing on You Tube as a couple of thoughtful souls have uploaded. Enjoy!

Griff said...

I read the book in elementary school, it was pretty cool

jf said...

My fault, I guess, for going in expecting something akin to "Alice in Wonderland." Instead, I got a lecture. This is one relentlessly didactic story.