The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

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In 1959, scientist CP Snow gave his highly influential lecture; The Two Cultures where he posited that Western civilization had prioritised literature and the humanities to the point that even the most educated members of society were functionally scientifically illiterate. Snow argued that we needed to spend less time on the arts and more time on mathematics and the hard sciences.

Flashforward to 2019 and, as I write this, the most pressing question in contemporary culture is which of a series of interchangeable slabs of orange bacon some wan from Longford is going to put her leg over first so good news, Mr Snow!

“Excellent, so presumably you are all now well versed in the noble sciences?”

“Feller, fer an egg-head you sure do say some dumb shit.”

The influence of The Two Cultures can be seen in The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster’s 1961 children’s novel. Originally released to poor sales, it quickly surged on strong reviews and is now considered one of the classics of 20th century children’s literature something something something segue CHUCK JONES!

Okay, when it comes to the question of who was the greatest Looney Tunes director there are no wrong answers as long as that answer is CHUCK JONES! No disrespect to Tex Avery, Friz Freling, Bob McKimson or Bob Clampett (well, a little disprespect to Bob Clampett the credit-hogging cad). Together, these men created some of the greatest, most timeless cartoon characters of all time and also Foghorn Leghorn and Pepe LePew.

But the cartoons by Chuck Jones are just on another level. They’re not only hilarious (though, my God) they are art. They transcend their medium.

But by the late 1960s Jones had left Warner Bros and was working for MGM, trying to salvage the Tom and Jerry series after the studio had rather disastrously experimented with continuing the series with cheap Czech animation.

Yes, that’s what this was referencing.

The Chuck Jones Tom and Jerry cartoons were better received but to be perfectly fair Jones’ subtle poised style was always a bad fit for the frenetic Tom and Jerry shorts. I do love his re-designs for the characters though.

But Jones’ last animation for MGM was their adaptation of The Phantom Tollbooth, which is also the only feature length animation he ever directed (not counting various Looney Tunes compilation films). This movie was on heavy rotation in the mouse house when I was growing up, and when the grainy VHS tape that we had used to tape it off BBC 2 was lost there was much wailing and gnashing of incisors which is why my brother requested that I review it.

“Yeah. I did. FIVE YEARS AGO.”

Sorry bro. This one was an absolute bear to track down. I’ve been waiting to do this review for so long that all the Trump jokes were originally going to be Tea Party jokes.

The movie begins in a San Francisco schoolroom in the seventies where young Milo has just completely checked out. Milo is played by Butch Patrick, the kind of freckle faced kid who you’d expect to be going “Gee whiz!” at the bottom of a well while a bunch of farmhands stand around a frantically barking collie. But Milo is not “Gee whizzing” or doing much of anything right now. Milo’s feeling, well I guess nowadays we’d say he’s depressed. He ambles home to the strains of our first song Milo, which is the late-sixties/early seventies in song form.

“Groovy.”

While talking to his friend Ralph on the phone about how life feels “kinda empty” he looks up to find that that a large toll booth has materialised in his living room in an almost phantom-like manner.

“CURSE YOU! YOU LITTLE LYING DELILAH!”

The Toll Booth tells Milo that it’s time to get off his ass and do something and presents him with a car and told to just go out on the open road and have adventures (this was basically seventies parenting in a nutshell). The Toll Booth tells Milo to pick a destination from his map and the kid sees sompleace called “The Castle in the Air” at the top of scary mountain filled with slavering demons and says “there, I guess” because God love this kid, but he ain’t that bright.

As he passes through the Toll Booth Milo gets turned into a cartoon which is no joke, lemme tell you, and we get to see him rendered in glorious Chuck Jones style.

And so, Milo is on his way. Now Juster’s original book belongs firmly in the genre of “Portal Fantasy” which has nothing to do with the sordid world of GLaDOS fanfiction. Portal Fantasies are those stories where someone (almost always a kid) travels from our world to another dimension; Wonderland, Oz, Neverland, Narnia, wherever. Of all its antecedents, Toll Booth is probably closest to Alice in Wonderland. Like Alice, Milo is not really a character with an arc but a reader surrogate, and like Carroll, Juster is less interested in story than in ideas, gags and wordplay. Much of the book is given over to concepts and characters that can only work because they exist in a book. Take, for example, the Triple Demons of Compromise, who are described as one being short and fat, one being tall and thin, and the third looking “exactly like the other two”. Juster almost seems like he’s going out of his way write an unfilmmable novel which might explain why Juster hated this movie and even resented the fact that people liked it which damn dude, c’mon. We’re just trying to have a good time.

Honestly, I think this is unfair. Jones and screenwriter Sam Rosen clearly busted their humps trying to translate this resolutely un-visual story as faithfully as possible. Yes, there are omissions (there would have to be, unless the movie was going to be two and a half hours long) but it still hews pretty damn close. Whole scenes are reproduced faithfully, dialogue repeated verbatim. A lot is lost, sure, but much remains and it’s all rendered in a really beautiful style by a great American animator near the height of his powers so fair trade, says Mouse.

The movie, like the novel, is heavily episodic. Milo drives through The Land Beyond and keeps coming across weird characters who are based on some pun or other. The first he meets is Officer Short Shrift played by the great Mel Blanc.

“I AM THE LAW!”

Short Shrift is the local filth and pulls Milo over for numerous petty infractions. He asks Milo if he wants a long or short sentence and Milo obviously picks “short” and so Short Shrift gives him “I am” which is the shortest sentence he knows. Milo says he can’t start serving it until after he gets back from the Castle in the Air which causes thunder to start crackling in the distance and Short Shrift goes speeding off in a panic.

Milo decides to continue on his way because, as previously noted, the poor kid ain’t that bright. To wit, because he’s not paying attention to the road, he ends up in the doldrums which is like the planet Dagobah covered in sentient snot. These are the Lethargians, who are a good deal more sinister here than in the original novel.

The Lethargians convince Milo to give up on his quest and stop doing everything (even breathing) but at the last minute he’s rescued by Tock “The Terrible Watchdog”, who the Lethargians are terrified of.

A lot of The Phantom Tollbooth (both book and film) is given over to the importance of not procrastinating and just WRITING THE GODDAMN BLOG POST MOUSE I mean, just getting on with doing what you’re supposed to be doing. This is ironic because the whole reason Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth was because he wasn’t making any headway with the book he was supposed to be writing, a book about architecture for children. Tock sings Time is a Gift, a song about the importance of treasuring time and not wasting it listening to old Epic Rap Battles of History videos when you should be researching Chuck Jones’ filmography.

After a few detours they reach Dictionopolis, a whole city dedicated to words where, if you so much as mutter some long division under your breath they’ll run you out of town on a rail. Tock and Milo explore the festival of words and meet two of the locals; The Spelling Bee and the Humbug.

Pictured: The Humbug.
Not pictured: Pants.

The Spelling Bee and the Humbug are beefing and end up throwing down in the marketplace as usually happens when someone isn’t wearing pants. They wreck the market and words go flying everywhere which results in the word “GUILTY” affixing itself to Milo. This is enough for Officer Short Shrift to show up and arrest Milo, sentence him to 6 million years in prison and then lock him up because he is also the judge and the jailer and damn, I was joking about the Judge Dredd comparison but it’s actually pretty apt.

Milo and Tock are sent to jail and there they meet the Good Which, Faintly Macabre, who fills them in on the backstory. Dictionopolis used to be part of the Kingdom of Wisdom, but when the old king died, his heirs argued over which was more important, numbers or words. This was a ridiculous argument of course, as neither are more important.

EMOJIS OVER ALL!

Kidding. #teamwords.

In order to settle this argument, the two princes went to the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason to ask them to settle this shit and the Princesses were all “oohhh, you both have valid points” and the princes’ were all “oh you always do that! Always middle-roading! You know what? BANISHED.”

So the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason were banished to the Castle in the Air and the Kingdom of Wisdom divided into Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, two increasingly polarised factions entrenched in their positions with no possible middle-ground American political system joke goes here.

Milo realises that the whole reason he’s here is to rescue the Princesses from the Castle in the Air (possibly defeating a fire-breathing turtle if needed). Tock and Milo are released from the dungeon and summoned to attend a banquet by the king of Dictionopolis, King Azaz the Unabridged.

Milo pleads his case to the king, and he agrees to let him try to rescue the Princesses because, since Reason’s been gone, words have lost all meaning, and since Rhyme’s been gone the noble art of limerick writing has gone to shit. The Humbug also joins the party, because the Spelling Bee stings his ass during the banquet, causing him to leap to his feet when the King asks for volunteers.

As they leave Dictionopolis Azaz gives him a bag containing: “All the great books of the past, and all the ones yet to come.”

“Does it have Winds of…”

“No it doesn’t have Winds of Winter. Let it go, kid. It’s not happening.”

Next stop on the route is Digitopolis, where they meet its ruler, the Mathemagician. At least, I think it’s a kingdom and I think he’s the ruler but we actually never see any Digitopolisians so it’s entirely possible that the Mathemagician is just a weird old hermit. Another thing that struck me as a bit odd (both in the book and the movie) is that Milo never gets a travelling companion from Digitopolis. In a story that’s about how words and numbers are equally important, you’d expect a representative from both kingdoms of the team, no? Anyway, Milo is able to get the Mathemagician’s permission to rescue the Princesses and even gets a magic pencil that can write any mathematic formula ever devised just like an ordinary pencil.

On their way to the Mountains of Ignorance they see Chroma the Great, the last sane man in the Land Beyond, whose job it is to conduct the sunrise and sunset.

They stop to watch him which leads to a beautiful sequence where Chuck Jones gets to show off some beautiful backgrounds and cheekily reference some of his earlier work.

After the sunset, Chroma asks milo to stick around and wake him in time for the sunrise and Milo, instead of telling the old man to buy a damn alarm clock, agrees. The Humbug suggests that Milo conduct the sunrise himself and Milo decides that’s a great idea because, holy shit this kid ain’t too bright.

Milo tries to conduct the sunrise himself. It…eh…it goes…room for improvement?

The sun exploded. Everyone on Earth died. The end.

Now even the sky in this place is batshit insane and Milo, Tock and Humbug continue on their way with the sky flashing different colours like it’s a rave. They come to the mountains of ignorance and have to escape or defeat various demons like the Senses Taker, the Demon of Insincerity and the Horrible Gelatinous Blob. It’s here where I can’t help feeling that the movie misses a trick. One of the demons they meet is The Terrible Trivium, by far my favourite character in this thing.

Everything about this character is just so perfectly creepy, from the “Edwardian Slender Man” look to Daws Butler’s silky delivery. That first “Hello, little boy” still gives me the chills. The problem is, he’s just so much more compelling and sinister than any of the other demons that it’s almost disappointing that he just appears and is gone like all the others. I kind of wish he could have been promoted to main villain, even if that would have meant deviating from the novel. The TT tries to waylay Milo by getting him to do pointless tasks like moving a pile of sand with a set of tweezers, saying that “if you only spend time on the pointless tasks, you’ll have to bother with the important ones”. Tock figures out who he is and the trio flee, being chased by the Trivium who screams after them:  “Wait! There are so many useless things left to do!”

“WHAT OF INSTAGRAM BOY?! WHAT OF INSTAGRAM?!”

After escaping, the trio finally come within sight of the Castle in the Air. But just when they think that they’ve won, they’re surrounded by an army of the Demons of Ignorance. Jones does something very interesting here, animating all the demons in a very rough, scratchy style making them look almost unfinished compared to the far more polished looking main characters. It’s creepy and quite effective. Tock gives a running commentary of every demon they see: “It’s the Terrible Hopping Hindsight! And the Gorgons of Hate and Malice! There’s the Threadbare Excuse!”

“Oh Jesus it’s TED CRUZ!”

Milo uses the bag and pencil he got from the two kings to defeat the various demons, cancelling them out with their various opposing virtues. The demons respond by merging into a single, massive demon representing all the evils of the world.

“BIGLY!”

The demon attacks and Tock is seemingly killed but Milo defeats the monster with the power of TRUTH (it’s a cartoon guys) and tells the Humbug to stay with Tock while he rescues the Princesses from the Castle in the Air.

“If there’s a little mushroom person in here I swear to God!”

In the castle he meets the Princesses who tell him that they were the ones who sent the Toll Booth to bring him here to rescue them. He tells them that he’s not a hero because he’s made so many mistakes and they say “hey, that’s all part of learning” and he’s all “no really, I blew up the sun” and they’re all “HOLY SHIT WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!”

No, not really, the Princesses tell him that they can set everything right now and they fly through the sky, putting everything to rights. Tock is brought back to life, the sky is fixed, the two kingdoms are reunited. S’all good in the hood.

***

My nostalgia for this movie makes an objective review more or less impossible. It’s very much of its era, for good and for bad, but if like me you love this kind of laid back groovy mid-century vibe in your cartoons then you’ll dig it.

Animation: 12/20

Nothing flashy, but with charming character designs and a wonderful use of colour.

Lead 12/20

Butch Patrick is your classic Nice Young Gentleman Who’s Trying his Best but it kinda works.

Villain: 13/20

The demons of ignorance are an impressively diverse collection of eejits.

Supporting Characters: 15/20

Music: 14/20

The songs range from bad to okay, but the music is groovy, daddio.

FINAL SCORE: 68%

NEXT UPDATE: 25 July 2019.

NEXT TIME: Continuing our theme of “I really should have done this sooner I am so sorry.”

21 comments

  1. Ah, a fellow acolyte of the Church of Chuck. Tell me friend, when last did you speak Confession, and by Confession I mean brutally humiliate an asshole in a way most Bugs Bunny-ish?

      1. I’m not personally fussed, but the personal touch with a stick of brightly coloured dynamite is basically the equivalent to buying indulgences in the 1500s, except it actually works!

  2. I read the play’s script in school, and my favorite demon was the census taker. I have looked for this a few times at thrift stores and libraries, and I can confirm it is hard to find in the USA too.

    For Jones’s Tom and Jerry I found the main issue to be Tom’s realistic meowing in the opening. It made me think of my cats too much.

  3. Butch Patrick was also Eddie Munster on the The Munsters and a regular on My Three Sons before taking this part, and he went on to be the main character on the surreal nightmare series Liddsville.

    I never liked this film. Chuck Jones’ character style makes most of the characters look nothing like the art in the books (I still can’t get used to the appearances of any of the main characters, particularly Tock), and a lot of the book’s more subtle humor (the Everpresent Wordsnatcher!) and wordplay was replaced with treacle-y sweetness, and the whole added subplot of Milo ruining the sunrise (not just for one day, as he did in the book, but seemingly permanently) just seemed like a strange addition given all the subplots they removed to make room for it.

    And, yeah, Butch Patrick coming across as a Nice Young Gentleman Who’s Trying His Best despite being, at the time, a seventeen-year-old with ten years of acting experience doesn’t help with any of that.

    I guess it’s a good enough movie on its own, but it’s not really a good adaptation and it’s a shame nobody’s tried to do another.

  4. “Portal Fantasies are those stories where someone (almost always a kid) travels from our world to another dimension; Wonderland, Oz, Neverland, Narnia, wherever.”

    Ooooooohhhhh! You mean ISEKAI!

    … yes, I went there.

  5. I swear, you can always instantly identify a Chuck Jones designed character. Something about the eyelids, oddly enough. I couldn’t describe another animator’s eyelid preferences with a gun to my head, but Jones is all about heavy, expressive eyelids.

    And George RR Martin does not have my permission to die until he finishes that book. I don’t care if I have to keep his soul in a duck egg, it’s getting done.

  6. My feelings on this movie are…Mixed. It’s not as faithful as I would like, which makes sense, because half of the jokes of the original are based on puns and word games that never work as well in animation as they do in text. The songs that, seemingly, replaced them are, admittedly, catchy, but kinda generic to me, and, also, more seventies then should be legal. Still, it is the work of probably the greatest animator/voice actor pairing of all time, so…Ya know, it’s alright.

  7. I have no connection whatsoever and watched the movie once, when I wrote about the relevant animated movies from the 20th century. It didn’t quite make the list (though I set it aside in order to maybe discuss it in another context later on). It’s…okay? I mean, I can see see children having a lot of fun with it and the puns, but overall, the story lacks direction. It doesn’t really draw me in.

  8. Ah “Phantom Tollbooth” that was one of my favorite books growing up (#TeamWords) and Chuck Jones, my favorite Looney Tunes animator.

    Unfortunately books like Tollbooth just contain way too many goodies to do justice to. Sad that they cut out the gripping finale where all the odd characters Milo and company met along the way band together to drive off the demons and rescue our heroes. That was my “Rohirrim arriving at Pelennor Fields” moment when I was 10.

    The book also kinda sparked my love of just learning new things and not simply settling on what you, or what you think you know. Or as the book put it:

    “You may not see it now,” said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo’s puzzled face, “but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way. Why, when a housefly flaps his wings, a breeze goes round the world; when a speck of dust falls to the ground, the entire planet weighs a little more; and when you stamp your foot, the earth moves slightly off its course. Whenever you laugh, gladness spreads like the ripples in the pond; and whenever you’re sad, no one anywhere can be really happy. And it’s much the same thing with knowledge, for whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer.”

  9. Also, Mouse, that mention of Alice in Wonderland reminds me of your professed hatred of it, and that reminds me of two quotes I thought you might find very satisfying, both from Terry Pratchett:

    “Have you ever wondered why a piece of crap like Alice in Wonderland is still in print? It really is the most awful book and I think it just keeps going because there’s some kind of momentum that keeps it trundling on. Does anyone ever read Alice in Wonderland these days? Really, really read it? Somehow society decides that some titles stay in print, even though they’re pretty awful and nobody reads them anymore. I’m sorry but I hated the book. I thought it was god-awful, creepy Victorian humour.”

    “I didn’t like the Alice books because I found them creepy and horribly unfunny in a nasty, plonking, Victorian way. Oh, here’s Mr Christmas Pudding On Legs, hohohoho, here’s a Caterpillar Smoking A Pipe, hohohoho. When I was a kid the books created in me about the same revulsion as you get when, aged seven, you’re invited to kiss your great-grandmother.”

    Derive whatever satisfaction you may wish from this information.

  10. I had a sarcastic comment to make but then I saw Buckaroo Banzai at the bottom and I can’t remember anymore.

  11. This is probably on my top 5 reviews you’ve done, great job! I love the book and greatly enjoy the film. Thanks for teaching me the phrase “Portal Fantasies”; I never knew what to call them before.

    And gee whiz, Milo sure ain’t too bright, huh?

    What’s your favorite song in the film? And what did you think of Hans Conried’s voice acting?

  12. So not only does a Phantom Toll Booth movie exist, but it’s halfway decent if you’re in the right mindset. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I will begin my quest to find it forthwith.

  13. I absolutely loved the book as a kid but I don’t remember much of it because it’s been sooooooo long since I last read it. Glad to hear the movie is worthwhile.

  14. Well sir, I have spent the last few days going through your entire backlog of posts after I saw your Bedknobs and Broomsticks review linked from theavocado’s recent post on the same. You’re a funny writer, although I think my standout moment is when you made the recurring Mulan joke in the Atlantis review. That was great stuff.

    This movie though… doesn’t hold a candle to the book.

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