A photograph can only capture an object; a drawing can liberate it. That phenomenon was not lost on Walt Disney, whose cartoons reveal a freedom noticeably absent from his "live" comedies. Nor is it lost on Chuck Jones, perhaps the foremost observer of the Disney fun factory. Scenarist-Director Jones, illustrator of many a Bugs Bunny and creator of Roadrunner, is the animating force behind The Phantom Tollbooth, his first full-length feature. It is based on Norton Juster's ten-year-old classic juvenile novel.
In the film, little Milo (Butch Patrick) is sitting around in San Francisco with "nothin' to do" when a candy-striped package appears in his room. Unwrapped, it becomes a tollbooth; when he drives his kiddie car through it, he becomes part of a cartoon interpretation of C.P. Snow's Two Cultures. Head of the Verbal World is King Azaz; his dreaded brother and rival, the Mathemagician, is "Ruler of Numbers." A series of adventures eventually earns Milo the role of peacemaker: he rescues the maidens Rhyme and Reason from a castle prison, thereby eliminating the sibling rivalry.
On the high road to the tower, Milo meets a number of literalized concepts. There are the Doldrums, where the evil Lethargians hang out, and the Mountains of Ignorance, home of the Terrible Trivium, the Threadbare Excuse and the Two-faced Hypocrite.
Juster's novel, the most effective wedding of allegory and whimsy since Oz, failed in only one sense; its brusque illustrations by Jules Feiffer were out of keeping with the fanciful story. The animation is a much happier complement to the adventure. Ironically, it is the plot that bogs the film down. More than 20 characters are thrown at the audience in 90 minutes; children will barely be able to recognize them before they disappear forever. Morever, such villains as the Lethargians are a thousand times more delightful than the vapid Rhyme and Reason, a pair gooey and artificial enough to have come directly from the top of a cake.
Still, in the epoch of the X-rated film, children's fare is rare indeed. The youthful viewer and his parents should overlook Phantom Tollbooth's flaws and concentrate on the film's underlying moral. Discovery and delight do not come at the end of the trail, but along the way. The going is the goal. · Stefan Kanfer