In the first of a new film review series appraising underrated, esoteric and downright crazy pictures old and new, Steve Thompson revisits a 1970 Chuck Jones animated feature; join him on a trip through The Phantom Tollbooth.
Can children’s films qualify as counter-cultural? Where do you go if you want your children to watch a film that makes them think, challenges their preconceptions and makes it all fun, imaginative and exciting?
The Phantom Tollbooth was first published in 1961, written by American author Norton Juster and illustrated profusely by Jules Feiffer. It was warmly received by critics, a large amount of its charm thanks to Feiffer’s expressive interpretations of Juster’s words.
Milo (Butch Patrick, best known as Eddie from The Munsters) is bored by school. His ennui strikes a chord today; the type of directionless youth the media likes to portray. The fact that his parents are largely absent from the picture suggests a reason for his attitude.
It takes a tollbooth appearing in his San Francisco apartment to shake him from his apathy – for a while, anyway. Milo remains cynical and distrustful despite the initial surprise of transforming into a cartoon character having driven through the tollbooth’s barrier. In the fantasy world beyond the gateway, he travels to fascinating places including Digitopolis, Dictionopolis and the Mountains of Ignorance.
Milo meets a Watchdog (half dog, half clock), the Spelling Bee, the Humbug, The Whether [sic]Man, The Senses Taker and the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason. They aid Milo’s journey through wordplay, puns, irony, wit, metaphor, reason and surrealism. With renewed vigour, he shakes off his fecklessness and resolves to rescue the not-so-helpless-after-all princesses.
Shot in a vibrant palette, the real world sequences match the cartoon world for colour and texture, despite a separate director, Dave Monahan, helming the live action. A veteran of Warner Bros. cartoons and MGM’s Tom & Jerry, Charles “Chuck” Jones was already an accomplished animation director. It doesn’t seem to have thrown him off moving from shorts up to a feature-length scale.
The film showcases Chuck’s natural flair for facial expression and movement. The ability to illicit a laugh from a quizzical look or leg wiggle makes his work instantly familiar. A master of timing, he could wring all the comedic value or tension from a well-judged pause in the mania. By comparison, Chuck’s contemporary Tex Avery relied on lightning-quick jumps and starts, his characters morphing breathlessly from one ridiculous state to an opposite, but equally funny, one. Avery aimed his work squarely at a more adult audience, with frequent sexual references that don’t seem to be part of Jones’s repertoire: Jones animated with deliberation and subtlety instead. Early in the film we meet the perpetual stoners, The Lethargians. Inhabiting an uneventful land called the Doldrums, they ooze, slip, slide and flop about, representing laziness and defeat. The animation conveys every bit of their physical weight and deadness as Milo succumbs to them.
There are experiments in the esoteric, too, recalling the oft-censored early Porky Pig short The Last Dodo (1938). That Robert Clampett film had Porky chasing the mythical Dodo through a disturbing Dali-esque landscape. In The Phantom Tollbooth we see the same use of Dali’s melting clocks, this time to mark the passage of time. This is juxtaposed with a Gilliam-esque Sun that resolves to a Moon before morphing into a pocket watch, the cogs spinning the car around and around. Jones is playing with all the visual cues he can think of to represent time here.
Towards the end we meet the villains of the piece, foul demons led by a particularly frightening creature with no face: The Terrible Trivium. Our heroes are set menial tasks by the Trivium to keep them occupied and confused. This last act is where Jones shows some weakness. The previously good-natured jaunt can’t be replaced by the required amount of menace we need to feel. The charming animation is too lively where it needs to be terrifying. The rest of the demons are sketchy and chaotic without being scary. They’re drawn hastily with vague lines suggesting production money was running out at this point.
The Phantom Tollbooth is undoubtedly dated in comparison with modern animation, but it remains an important film. It manages to be subversive in its unabashed approach to demonstrating that learning can be wonderful. And there’s plenty for adult audiences, who will appreciate the more complex wordplay. If you track down this film (currently available in the US only) your eyes will be opened, as Milo’s are, to the possibilities out there.
Review by Steve Thompson; a writer, cartoonist and occasional stand-up comic. Follow him on Twitter.