The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

There are elements of Chuck Jones’ film version of The Phantom Tollbooth which I didn’t enjoy as much as I once did, but we still had a pretty good time watching this with our four year-old this morning. Daniel is still a little young to appreciate all the strange wordplay, silly puns, and world-building of this movie, and the lesson that learning is important, although memorization is not, certainly sailed over his head, but even for kids his age, this is a fun adventure movie.

What I didn’t like was the overuse of songs in the movie’s first half. It’s paced very badly in that regard, with one song after another, far too quickly. They slow down in the second half, which is appreciated, also because none of the songs are particularly good.

I was a little disappointed, actually. I remember the movie being a little better than I think it actually is. It’s been thirty-odd years since I saw it, but while the animated bulk of the film has a pleasing, psychedelic sense of design and a few very clever characters – the Terrible Trivium is particularly memorable – it really never lives up to what it could have been. I actually enjoyed the live-action bookends, which starred Butch Patrick as Milo, much more than I did the animation. Patrick conveyed Milo’s sense of boredom and ennui in the real world more than the cartoon did. I’ve got a lot of time for Chuck Jones, but this is honestly among his lesser works.

Daniel didn’t like the scene where Milo is nearly lost in the Doldrums, but otherwise he was attentive and curious about the whole adventure, and really loved the battles with the various demons in the land beneath the Castle in the Air. We paused the movie to briefly explain the Mathemagician’s claim that there is no “largest number,” which amused him. I think he might have appreciated it even more around age seven, but he enjoyed it all the same.


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