One of the lesser-known films helmed by animation legend Chuck Jones is the 1970 fantasy film The Phantom Tollbooth, based on the 1961 book by Norton Juster.
The story concerns a boy named Milo (Butch Patrick, first seen in live action) who discovers a mysterious toll booth in his room upon lamenting his boredom to a friend on the phone. He passes through the toll booth (where he changes from live action to animation) and enters a parallel world known as the Kingdom of Wisdom, where he discovers a feud between Dictionopolis (Kingdom of Words) and Digitopolis (Kingdom of Mathematics) which only he can solve by locating the princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason.
Along the way, Milo meets and befriends many amusing characters with eccentric personalities and clever names like Tock the talking watchdog (Larry Thor), the Humbug (Les Tremayne), the Spelling Bee (Shepard Menken), the Whether Man (Daws Butler), Officer Short Shrift (Mel Blanc), Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord (Cliff Norton) and the two kings of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, King Azaz the Unabridged (Hans Conried) and The Mathemagician (also Hans Conried).
No doubt inspired by the works of Lewis Carroll, this story shares similarities with Alice in Wonderland in its episodic structure and cast of nonsensical characters. Despite its obvious inspiration, this movie is not without its own type of charm.
The writing is often amusing, the character of Milo does a good job conveying the audience’s feelings, the songs are good (my favorites were “Time Is a Gift,” and “Don’t Say There’s Nothing to Do in the Doldrums”), and the animation from Chuck Jones’ team of artists is solid, funny and full of life, as usual.
Many talented artists are present here: Maurice Noble (production designer on What’s Opera Doc? and Duck Dodgers), George Nicholas (a lot of Pluto cartoons at Disney, Hanna-Barbera), Irv Spence (Tom and Jerry, Hanna-Barbera), Bill Littlejohn (Tom and Jerry, the Peanuts specials), Alan Zaslove (Darkwing Duck, The Return of Jafar), Philip Roman (founder of Film Roman).
Those who have grown up watching Bugs Bunny and the Grinch will get the most enjoyment out of this under-the-radar gem which marks the only full-length feature film with Chuck Jones credited as a director. He co-directed with Abe Levitow, a Mr. Magoo director who also made the underrated 1962 feature film Gay-Purree for Warner Bros.
The Phantom Tollbooth isn’t that original, but it is worth seeing at least once. There is considerable talent on display throughout the entire production.