The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)
I first saw The Phantom Tollbooth during the early seventies, more than likely on a Sunday afternoon. I enjoyed it at the time but being a child its subtleties were lost on me. However I did get a distinct feeling that there was more to the movie than met the eye and it stuck in my mind as being different to the other animated films that I had seen at the time. Forty years on, I am now familiar with the legacy of Chuck Jones and the significance of his work. So when I recently acquired a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth on DVD I was very keen to revisit it and view it through the eyes of an adult.
Made by MGM in 1969, The Phantom Tollbooth sat on the shelf for over a year due to internal studio problems. It was finally released to an indifferent public a year later. The story remains relatively faithful to Norton Juster's book, but clearly has the hallmark of animator Chuck Jones stamped on it along with a lot of late sixties ambience. The songs are clever and engaging although the title theme is very sub-Burt Bacharach. The movie starts with a live action opening sequence involvingMilo, (Butch Patrick), a bored young boy who lives in San Fransisco. He travels via the titular tollbooth to the Kingdom Of Wisdom where he must reunite the feuding realms ofDictionopolis and Digitopolis by rescuing the Princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Castle In The Air.
The transition from live action to animation is competently made and the film has a very experimental style and is artistically literate. The main characters are intriguing being either literary or mathematical idioms. There is Tock The Watchdog, Mr Humbug, The Spelling Bee, The Whetherman and his sister, The not so wicked Which. They're all a very likeable bunch (I defy you not to warm to Tock). The narrative reflects the positive outlook of the Kennedy era (the book was written in 1961) and infers that a balance between knowledge, science and art is the path to happiness and cultural harmony. However the stories greatest assets are also its Achilles heel. The puns, metaphors, word play and conundrums may well alienate the casual viewer.
However I am of the opinion that cinema is a two way street and that the viewer cannot always be spoon fed. The Phantom Tollbooth is an entertaining and thoughtful example of family entertainment, as well as a valuable historical window into the social attitudes of the time. The movie features a wealth of the best voice artists from the time such as Mel Blanc and Daws Butler as well as some beautiful word play ("You didactic drone") and credits its audience with both an imagination and a brain. If you get a chance to see it, then give it a go. If you have kids, then watch it with them and if they don't like it, hit them with a big dictionary while singing "Time is a Gift" (which is the best song in the movie).