Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I've always had very fond memories of Norton Juster's children's book The Phantom Tollbooth, and so when I read on Mark Evanier's News From Me that Turner Classic Movies would be presenting the little-seen and long unavailable film adaptation co-directed by Chuck Jones, I made it a point to watch it.

Stopping for a moment at Expectations, I found that my hopes weren't particularly high; the book thrives on a sort of wordplay, charm, and cleverness that's very hard to translate to film. The always insightful Russ Allbery said that Juster's book was "quite possibly the best didactic children's book ever written" and he notes how difficult it is to write a didactic book that doesn't feel like it's preaching at you; he's "never read a book that succeeds as well [as The Phantom Tollbooth]."

The movie, to put it bluntly, is preachy. Though some choice bits of Juster remain, the deliverly is always off. It's zany, which when talking about animated features of the sixties means that it's completely ordinary. The charm and cleverness are shunted aside for songs that make you want to take a cheese grater to your ears. The didactism remains and as a result becomes annoying and tedious. There's a reason why this movie has been little-seen and uncelebrated.

TCM also presented Jones's Academy-Award winning short The Dot and The Line. This earlier film was also a Juster adaptation, and I feel that it succeeded in all the ways that Jones's film of Tollbooth came up short: this "romance in lower mathematics" preserves the abstract geekery and full-on nerdiness of Juster's story with charm and wit.

The screenplay for The Dot and The Line was written by Juster himself, which might have had something to do with it, or it might be that that special kind of charm, so integral to the original books in both cases is easier to translate to film for nine minutes than ninety.

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