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The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth(1970)


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teaser The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

Bugs Bunny, The Roadrunner, Wile E. Coyote, and....Milo? If the last name seems unfamiliar, it shouldn't. They were all drawn by the master animator Chuck Jones (1912-2002), best known for the short cartoons he drew for Warner Brothers in the 1930's through the 1950's. His cartoons have never gone out of style and remain favorites to this day. His What's Opera, Doc? (1957) set Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny to the music of Richard Wagner, Duck Dodgers in the 24th Century (1953) launched Daffy Duck into space and Fast and Furry-ous (1949) pushed Wile E. Coyote literally over the edge, down to become a small puff of dust at the bottom of a very big canyon.

Milo, the name with which you may not be familiar, belongs to the star of Chuck Jones' only original feature-length movie, The Phantom Tollbooth (1970). Norton Juster's much-loved children's book of the same name had been a favorite of both children and teachers since its publication in 1961.

Jones and Juster first worked together on The Dot and the Line (1965), which won Jones his only non-honorary Academy Award for Best Cartoon Short Subject. Following that success Jones showed his affinity for children's literature and longer-form material by creating the Peabody Award-winning television adaptation of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966). Both achievements allowed Jones to begin work on The Phantom Tollbooth, MGM's first feature-length animated film.

The story begins in San Francisco with a live-action Milo played by Butch Patrick, best known for his role as Eddie Munster on the TV series The Munsters (1964-1966). A "phantom tollbooth" springs from a large gift-wrapped box and when Milo passes through it, he becomes an animated cartoon. Inside the world of the tollbooth he finds a dog named Tock (short for Tick-Tock since he's a watch-dog) and gets help from the Whether Man and his sister The Which. Eventually he arrives at two kingdoms, Dictionopolis ruled by King Azaz where words are valued above all else and Digitopolis ruled by the Mathemagician where numbers are considered more valuable than words. To bring these kingdoms together, Milo must pass through the Mountains of Ignorance to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason.

The Phantom Tollbooth might seem like a 90-minute version of Schoolhouse Rock, but Jones allows his imagination free-range with sequences that have the playful wildness of Fantasia (1940) and Yellow Submarine (1968). Also along for the ride are some very familiar voices provided by Hans Conried (Snidley Whiplash in Dudley Do-Right), June Foray (Rocky in Rocky & Bullwinkle) and Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny and many, many others).

Unfortunately, when The Phantom Tollbooth was released in 1970, MGM was in chaos and they had little pull to get good bookings in theaters. For the most part the movie played only at afternoon children's matinees before it disappeared. A pity, as that generation of children would be raised on a similar combination of humor and learning on a new public television show, Sesame Street.

The box office failure of The Phantom Tollbooth brought Jones' career in feature films to a halt. Perhaps the time has come to re-assess this version of a classic children's story presented by one of the greatest masters of animation.

Producer: Les Goldman, Chuck Jones, Abe Levitow
Director: Chuck Jones, Abe Levitow, Dave Monahan
Screenplay: Chuck Jones, Norton Juster, Sam Rosen
Cinematography: Lester Shorr
Film Editing: William Faris
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Charles K. Hagedon
Music: Dean Elliott, Lee Pockriss
Cast: Butch Patrick (Milo), Mel Blanc (Officer Short Shrift), Daws Butler (Whether Man), Candy Candido (Awful DYNN), Hans Conried (additional voices), June Foray (additional voices).
C-89m. Closed captioning.

by Brian Cady

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