Chuck Jones and the strange fare of ‘Phantom Tollboth’

Dec. 12, 2010 | 8:15 a.m.

DVD RELEASE: “PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH” (1970)

Chuck Jones , who died in 2002, had a Midas touch — the famed animator, screenwriter, producer and director brought a comedic and kinetic genius to his “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” cartoon shorts at Warner Bros.  Studios. He directed numerous classic shorts starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester and Tweety and Pepe Le Pew. Among his most famous shorts are “Duck Amuck,” “One Froggy Evening” and “What’s Opera, Doc?” — and then there’s his 1966 adaptation of  “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which continues to win over new generations of fans every holiday season.

But not everything the late Jones put his hands on turned to gold — take “The Phantom Tollbooth,” the only feature film he ever directed. The 1970 release was held up because of internal problems at MGM, and the studio made limited efforts to promote the film. “Tollbooth” failed to make any noise at the box office, and it holds the dubious honor of being MGM’s first and last animated feature film. It did have notable names doing voice work, with Mel Blanc, Hans Conried, Daws Butler and June Foray making lively contributions and wild images. A remastered wide-screen version on DVD has just been released by Warner Archive Collection.

Butch Patrick in "The Phantom Tollbooth." (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Butch Patrick, who was quite the cute kid without his Eddie Munster goth garb, played Milo, a young boy bored with life in San Francisco. While he’s talking to his friend on the phone one day after school, a box suddenly arrives in his bedroom. The box opens to reveal a mysterious tollbooth. Driving into the tollbooth in his toy car, he enters a magical animated world. With the help of a ticking watchdog named Tock, he travels past the Mountains of Ignorance, Dictionopolis and Digitopolis on the way to the Castle in the Air, where the rescue of Princess Rhyme and Reason might bring peace to the Kingdom of Wisdom. The tale presents a war between two factions — one believes in words, the other in numbers — but the core motivation, as you may have guessed, is to entertain while celebrating education and learning.

The movie was based on the children’s novel by Norton Juster (the same author who supplied the source material for Jones’ Oscar-winning short, “The Dot and the Line”) and it was a blended production; Dave Monahan was the director of the live-action sequences that bookended the film, and Jones  co-directed the animated sequences with Abe Levitow.  The live-action sequences were completed in 1968 . Juster didn’t have any input in the film and was supposedly not happy with the result. Today, the film may sound quaint (or creaky), but talk is ramping up of a new Hollywood adaptation of the book.

– Susan King

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[For the record, 10:47 a.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" as "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas."  Also, June Foray's last name was misspelled as Forway.]

Comments


One Response to Chuck Jones and the strange fare of ‘Phantom Tollboth’

  1. Alan Dean Foster says:

    To the more famous voice-over names mentioned in the article I should like to add that of Larry Thor, who voiced the important role of the watchdog Tock. A man of endless charm and considerable perception, Larry was my mentor while I was acquiring my MFA at UCLA and contributed mightily to my becoming a writer.

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