The Phantom Tollbooth review (1970, dir. Charles “Chuck” Jones)

"...it's not just learning that's important. It's learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things that matters."

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? Wouldn't that make it run counter to most of the vapid fare out there?

The children's book The Phantom Tollbooth was first published in 1961. Written by American author Norton Juster and illustrated profusely by Jules Feiffer it was received warmly by critics. A large amount of the charm of the book is down to Feiffer's expressive interpretations of Juster's words. If you're not familiar with his work think Quentin Blake with a more scratchy but assured line.

The film of The Phantom Tollbooth combines live-action and animation. It stars Butch Patrick (Eddie from The Munsters) in person and in voice as Milo. When MGM released the film in 1970 it was the last time they used animation in any of their features.

Milo is bored by school and uninterested in learning. His ennui is a phenomenon that strikes a chord today; the type of direction-less youth that the media likes to portray. The fact that his parents are largely absent from the picture suggests a reason.

It takes a Tollbooth and a small car to appearing in his house to shake him from his apathy. For a while, anyway. Milo remains cynical and distrustful despite the initial suprise of transforming into a cartoon character once past the Tollbooth’s barrier. In the fantasy world beyond he travels to fascinating cities and lands such as 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 all help Milo progress with wordplay, puns, irony, wit, metaphor, reason and surrealism. Eventually he shakes of his fecklessness and resolves to rescue the princesses (who turn out to be not exactly helpless anyway).

Shot in a vibrant palette, the real world almost matches the cartoon world for colour and texture, despite having a separate director. The animated sequences (that make up the bulk of the film) really allow director Chuck Jones to make the film his own. As a veteran of both Warner Bros. cartoons and MGM's Tom & Jerry, Jones was already an accomplished animator when he started the film. It doesn't seem to have thrown him moving from animated shorts up to a feature length scale, though.

I can think of very few animators have a natural flair for facial expression and body contortion as Chuck Jones. 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. In comparison Tex Avery, for example, was a master of lightening quick jumps and starts, his characters morphing quickly from one ridiculous state to another opposing, but equally funny, state. Avery also aimed his work squarely at a more adult audience with frequent sexual references that don't seem to be part of Jones' repertoire. Chuck Jones was deliberate and subtle instead. In The Phantom Tollbooth we meet the perpetual stoners; The Lethargians. They live in the Doldrums, a place where nothing ever happens, and ooze, slip, slide, drop and hang about the place. Their expressions are sleepy and defeated. In the animation you can feel every bit of their physical weight and the heaviness that infects Milo as he succumbs to their laziness.

There are experiments in the esoteric too, that recall the oft-censored early Porky Pig short The Last Dodo (1938). That Bob Clampett film had Porky chasing the Dodo through a dark, disturbing Salvador 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 blended with a Terry Gilliam-esque Sun and Moon morphing into a stopwatch that demonstrates the passing of the seasons before changing again into a large pocket watch, the cogs spinning the car around and around.

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 and terror we need to feel here. The animation is too lively and charming where it needs to be harder and slower. 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 to modern animation but it is still an important film. It manages to be subversive in being unabashed in its approach to making learning fun. It shows that language and numbers are a source of awe and wonder. There's plenty here for adults too who will appreciate the more complex wordplay and thrill of learning. Combined with Chuck Jones' brand of animated litheness and some endearingly realised characters, if you track down this film your eyes will be opened, as Milo's are, to the possibilities out there.