Video Vault: THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH and the 1970’s TV Specials of Chuck Jones
Children’s entertainment is filled with stories of kids stumbling in to magical and imaginary lands; one of my favorite of those lands is the Kingdom of Wisdom from Norton Jester’s literary masterpiece The Phantom Tollbooth. While the novel is often essential elementary school reading, legendary Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones’s 1970 musical cinematic adaptation has largely existed on the fringe of popular culture. Filled with clever puns, word play, and literal interpretations of English language idioms, the experience of reading The Phantom Tollbooth can never fully be translated to the medium of film. However, Jones’s mostly faithful adaptation is an enjoyable and enchanting interpretation of the beloved material. While my own complete comprehension and appreciation of the novel came later in life, my love of the tale of Milo and his eccentric companions is one that began with frequent rentals of The Phantom Tollbooth from my local Video Vault.
Bookended by live action segments, The Phantom Tollbooth was the last release from MGM to feature animation. The film tells the story of Milo (The Munsters’s Butch Patrick), an ambitionless child bored by the world around him who one day comes home from school to find a miniature tollbooth in his home. Having nothing better to do, Milo gets in the provided toy car and drives through the tollbooth into the animated Kingdom of Wisdom, currently in turmoil due to the kidnapping of the Princesses Rhyme and Reason. Reluctantly tasked with the duty of rescuing the princesses and re-uniting the kingdom, Milo is assisted by several colorful characters along the way including Tock the Watchdog, Humbug, Spelling Bee, Whether Man, Faintly Macabre, King Azaz, and Awful Dynne. Creatively evil monsters such as The Terrible Trivium, The Demon of Insincerity, and Senses Taker attempt to thwart the boy and his companions. Thanks to his newly-found self-empowerment and a series of gifts he is given throughout the journey, Milo successfully returns Rhyme and Reason to restore order in the Kingdom of Wisdom and learns an important life lesson. Upon returning through the tollbooth, he realizes that the world he lives in is every bit as magical, interesting, and worth being a part of as the fantasy land he just left.
Being a Chuck Jones film, the animation and voice acting are first rate. The original songs and score are exceptional as well. The Kingdom of Wisdom translates well via the Chuck Jones style. Mel Blanc (voice of the Looney Tunes), June Foray (voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Cindy Lou Who, Granny), and Daws Butler (voice of Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Snagglepuss) lend their exceptional talents to multiple characters. I think that the reason I connected quickly to The Phantom Tollbooth is because: 1) Unlike Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz it featured a male protagonist. 2) It is a modern fantasy (Milo lives in a San Francisco apartment) that addresses more modern evils. The villains are sly, deceptive, and often attractive at first. A sequence that has always stuck in my mind is when Milo accidentally drives into the Doldrums where a group of goopy globlins known as Lethargians begin to sing the life out of Milo, putting him to sleep while slime slowly consumes him. The scariest part of the film is an encounter with the faceless, bowler hat wearing, Terrible Trivium, “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and friend to lazy and foolish people everywhere.” I am sure that my disdain for stupid and pointless jobs, wasted time, and inefficiency stem from this cinematic moment. Overall, it is an excellent merging of director and source material. The Phantom Tollbooth is an fantastic animated feature definitely worth revisiting, however, the most important thing about this film is that it paved the way for Jones’s fabulous television specials of the 1970’s.
While the Looney Tunes will always be Chuck Jones’s legacy and 1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is his most popular television special, it is his adaptations in the 1970’s that he himself has said were his favorite. Beautifully animated and brimming with heart The Cricket in Times Square (1973), Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (1975), The White Seal (1975), andMowgli’s Brothers (1976) have always been special to me. There is a timeless classic-ness and classiness about them.
The Cricket in Times Square is based on George Selden’s Newbery Honor Award winning children’s book of the same name. It is the story of, Chester, a musically talented cricket from Connecticut who accidentally winds up in a picnic basket headed to New York, is adopted by an Italian family who own a failing newsstand, and helps them turn their business around by giving classical music concerts at the newsstand. After deciding that he will not be happy unless he returns to his home, Chester gives an epic final concert that stops all of Times Square and several New York City blocks while everyone listens to his music. It is a simple, yet elegant, tale of friendship, the power of music, and the importance of stopping to appreciate beautiful things in life. Jones magnificently animated New York cityscapes and Les Tremayne’stouching voice work as Chester make this a perfect 24-minute family film. Jones wrote and directed two sequels A Very Merry Cricket (1973) and Yankee Doodle Cricket (1975). While certainly not bad, the sequels do not come anywhere close to capturing the magic of the original installment.
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, The White Seal, and Mowgli’s Brothers are all adaptation of stories from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. They are widely considered to be the most faithful screen adaptations of Kipling’s writing. All three are superb and maintain that classic literary feel to them. Narration by Roddy McDowell and Orson Welles certainly does not hurt. Roddy McDowell narrates The White Seal, and Mowgli’s Brothers, but Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, narrated by Orson Welles, is the true masterwork of the series. It is the story of a courageous mongoose, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, who protects a 19th-century English family living in India from a pair of cobras planning on killing the family to take over their garden and make a home for their unhatched babies. It is a rather serious and frightening tale as Rikki risks his life several times while graphically destroying the cobras and their eggs. It is a product of a time when children’s entertainment could still involve actual threats, danger, and violence. Jones’s translation of the exotic and enthralling material is impeccable. The notable score exceptionally highlights the action. It is impossible for this short film not to make an impression on its viewers; the love for this film by its fans of all ages is prominent across the Internet. Unfortunately, it still does not have the cultural prominence and appreciation that it deserves.
The Phantom Tollbooth and the 70’s TV specials showcase more mature and artistic aspects of Jones’s talents. It also proves that he is one of cinemas greatest translators. They are lovingly crafted timeless family entertainments bursting with heart and essential additions to any family’s movie collection. You should probably pick them up from your local video store’s VHS bargain bin or you can find them on DVD. I’m still waiting on Blu-Ray releases. The Cricket in Times Square, A Very Merry Cricket, Yankee Doodle Cricket, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, The White Seal, and Mowgli’s Brothers can all be found on one DVD set called “The Chuck Jones Collection.” Maybe check out these next time you are considering watching Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. You likely won’t be disappointed.