The animated film is stocked with giants, hermits, demons, kings, princesses, and countless other characters, all of which are made to embody some safe and reliable mnemonic for viewers to conjure when it comes to modern literature or mathematics.
Milo returns home from school one day to find an enormous candy-wrapped gift sitting in the middle of his home. Curious, he unfurls the package to discover a tollbooth, a car, and a roadmap resting inside. The boy drives through the magical tollbooth, turns into a cartoon character, and thus ventures into the Kingdom of Knowledge. As The Phantom Tollbooth continues, Milo encounters a wealth of eccentric people and strange creatures -- the Lethargians are slothful, wasteful creatures; the Spelling Bee knows just about every word there is; the Humbug is a friendly chatterbox; and Tock, a wise watchdog, has a giant alarm clock embedded in his body.
While Chroma the Great delicately conducts the colors of the sky as if they were a symphony, the feuding King Azaz (of Dictionopolis) and Mathemagician (of Digitopolis) bicker over whether words or numbers are more important to a stable society. Milo meets all of these characters, and usually presses them, eager to learn or understand the hows and whys of their perplexing world.
The Phantom Tollbooth is a cartoon stocked with delightful wordplay (as Milo must rescue the banished princesses Rhyme and Reason), but whose indulgences can often feel more than a bit prying. Fortunately, the film's art direction, editing, and sound design are a lovely find. The feature was based on the popular novel of the same name by Norton Juster (1961), and gestated in production and post-production for years during the then-collapse of MGM in the late 1960s.
Integrating somehow-sensible representations of the linguistic or mathematical arts into a child's adventure, The Phantom Tollbooth is not entirely non sequitur, but remains a fun and colorful romp.
The Warner Archive Collection, it should be mentioned, was launched a little more than a year and a half ago to offer enthusiasts of legacy cinema the opportunity to own classic movies on DVD. Films ranging from the early 1920s to titles produced just in the past decade are available for purchase, specifically made-to-order and using DVD-R recordable media. The catalogue ranges from campy superhero action, to mid-century science fiction drama, to not-quite-forgotten television and feature animation, including The Pirates of Dark Water (1991) and Rover Dangerfield (1991). Films in the Warner Archive Collection are unlikely to receive the full and proper, home video release treatment.
Recent Old School Animation News:
"Rock & Rule Returns, Hits Blu-ray Disc" at AnimationInsider.net (08/2010)
"Fantasy Forgotten: 25 Years of The Black Cauldron" at AnimationInsider.net (08/2010)