From the home video release.


Medium: Illustrated Children's Prose
Produced as animation by: MGM
First Appeared: 1961
Created by: Norton Juster
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Most descriptions of The Phantom Tollbooth begin with the observation that Milo, its protagonist, was a kid who suffered from boredom. This is because he wasn't just bored — boredom was a defining point of his character. It was almost to the …

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… point where Milo was bored like Uncle Scrooge is rich, or like Gladstone Gander is lucky. Milo didn't think life was worth living, he was so monumentally bored.

That's how the novel by childrens' author Norton Juster, publlished in 1961, opened. The story was about him finding cause to end the condition. The tollbooth of the title appeared mysteriously in his life, and turned out to be the gateway to a magical adventure. The illustrations by Jules Feiffer contributed to its quick success with kids and especially the grown-ups who read to them.

Chuck Jones first worked with Juster in 1965, when they adapted his 1963 book, The Dot & the Line, into an Oscar-winning cartoon for MGM (Droopy, Red). The studio got out of the short cartoon business not much later, but Jones was still working for them when he made Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas into a half-hour TV special in 1966.

By the later '60s, MGM and Jones were both ready to try a new animated feature. Juster's earlier book, which was both complex enough to sustain that long a work, and full of the sort of characters and situations that seemed designed for animation, made a fine subject for the new project — which was finally released on November 7, 1970.

In the story, Milo's cure for boredom was his discovery of the fun aspects of learning. When he drove his toy car through the Tollbooth, he entered the Kingdom of Wisdom, which had contained cities such as Digitopolis and Dictionopolis, where people were obsessed with numbers and words, respectively. His adventures took him to such locations as The Mountains of Ignorance and The Doldruns, where apathy creates inaction and unhappiness. But nothing made sense at first, and it was necessary for him to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason (no relation) from captivity. He met charming characters such as Officer Short Shrift, The Mathemagician, The Spelling Bee and The Whether Man.

If this sounds preachy — maybe that explains why adults liked its pro-education message even better than kids. The movie was more so than the book, but still connected with its juvenile intended audience well enough to make it a success, if only a modest one — at least a better commercial success than Jones's first feature, Gay Purr-ee.

A major complaint about the film was that, like Disney's versions of Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh, it didn't look very much like the original. Jones made no attempt to copy Feiffer's character designs. As a result, it looked more like a Chuck Jones production than an adaptation of Juster's novel.

The main movie was surrounded by a live-action framing device, in which Milo is introduced and acquires the Tollbooth. In this scene, he was played by Butch Patrick, best known for playing Eddie Munster, but whose only other animation role was to voice himself in an episode of The Simpsons. In the main body of the film, the all-star voice cast included Mel Blanc (Tasmanian Devil, Marvin the Martian), Daws Butler (Augie Doggie, Lippy the Lion), June Foray (Granny Gummi, Nell Fenwick), Thurl Ravenscroft (Tony the Tiger but not Michigan J. Frog), Shepard Menken (Clyde Crashcup, Doctor Doom in the early '80s), Hans Conried (Magic Mirror, Uncle Waldo) and many more.

Now nearing its half-century mark, the book remains in print, and as popular as ever. The movie is often seen on TV.


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Text ©2008-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © MGM.