"Expect everything, I always say, and the unexpected never happens"
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster has been an enduring hit for slightly-brainy middle-graders since its release in 1961. It’s an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland riff, but replacing the bad-acid-trip imagery with language wordplay. But that’s kind of a problem. Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories adapt so easily to cinema because of the strength of the images in the text. The Phantom Tollbooth is all about English linguistic puns: It’s a lot harder to visually convey a joke about the distinction between “which” and “witch” than it is to, e.g., show a man with a hat having a tea party with a rabbit. It’s tempting to call the book “unfilmable” and be done with it.
But if you must have someone adapting it, Chuck Jones is the best case scenario. This was Jones’ culminating project in his decade at MGM following his glory years at Warner Brothers, and his most ambitious feature-length project, period. You could very well call it his magnum opus, at least in scope. And since Jones never adapted Carroll — which seems like a major gap; somebody please rewind film history and correct this — this is the most pure and extended example of psychedelic whimsy he’d ever create.
Beyond Carroll, the other obvious inspiration is The Wizard of Oz. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones had it playing on loop while he was writing and animating this. The story has the same basic structure as Oz. It uses a “reality” framing story shown in a different visual language than the fantastical core of the film, with our confused protagonist gathering interlopers and marching towards a distant castle that’s the key to getting back home. In the Phantom Tollbooth, though, the different visual schema isn’t “black and white vs. three-strip Techincolor” but “live action vs. animation,” though it conveys in a similar way. If only Phantom Tollbooth’s story itself was more of a hero’s journey and less of a dawdle.
From a narrative perspective, Jones — supported by Abe Levitow and Les Goldman on the production front, and Sam Rosen on the writing front — fails to wrangle Juster’s novel into a compelling shape. The film is barely 90 minutes long, but feels much longer thanks to its episodic script and meandering tone. Even Jones struggles transmute witty wordplay into cinematic comedy. It’s, frankly, a boring movie, all things considered. (And it’s not helped by some aggressively mediocre numbers composed by Lee Pockriss.)
That’s one side of the coin. The other is the animation and visual design, which is not just great, but on a masterpiece level. You can’t go more than two minutes without some baroque composition that made me want to pause and stare at it for thirty seconds. Jones is pulling in a dozen different textures and, in some cases, even different mediums, to tell this story. The backgrounds are busy, abstract, expressionistic triumphs. The effects and character animation is brimming with innovative tricks. Jones really is a genius.
What most impressed me is how much of the story’s content Jones is able to reflect in the animation. At Dictionopolis, the city that worships words, letters are the building blocks of sets and effects, warping and reshaping sometimes into outright abstraction. Meanwhile, the Castle in the Air is a shapeless flash that still manages to convey a dreamy sense of hope and clarity. The Doldrums’ stretchy, goopy characters and props are the essence of drowsiness.
And much of it is silly, but it can be really scary, too. The climax shows Milo (voiced by Butch Patrick) battling off a horde of nightmarish demons. It’s dark and intense stuff for a movie whose main theme is “words are silly.”
Despite tremendous variety, Jones makes it all cohere into a sweeping, unified vision. The color design is unnatural yet compelling. Dull colors clash with pastels in thematically meaningful ways (nonsense vs. order). There’s a sunrise and sunset that are gorgeous pools of deep color. A joy to watch.
A few more screen caps just for the hell of it:
Where does it leave us when you put it all together? We’ve got a story that barely moves to the point that Jones’ achievement sometimes feels like a technical exercise, a canvas to show off his otherworldly talent and vision. But, by God, it’s transcendent stuff in fits and starts.
There’s no easy answer! I admit I didn’t strictly enjoy watching The Phantom Tollbooth for its duration, but I did admire the hell out of it. If you’re an animation glutton, feast away, friend. If you want to turn something on and have a good time, you might be disappointed.