To call this movie didactic is to make ‘didactic’ a compliment! The story is a clever allegory about a boy who’s bored because he’s lazy, jaded, or both. When he suddenly finds a huge gift box in his bedroom one day after school, he pulls it open to find a tollbooth and a car that takes him through a gate to another world, where he must convince two kings to allow Rhyme and Reason to return to a land suffering from chaos and discord. On the way he has to learn to value knowledge and thinking using words and numbers as tools to defeat the demons that lurk in the Mountains of Ignorance.
Much of my love for this movie is probably nostalgia, but even if you’ve never seen it before, I think you’ll love the colorful Dr. Seuss–like visuals, the allegorical names, and the thrilling adventure quest itself.
The movie is mostly a cartoon, but opens and closes with live-action sequences filmed and set in San Francisco.
I was so pleased when Warner Brothers released The Phantom Tollbooth on DVD. I loved the movie for years. I must have seen it by borrowing it on VHS tape from the library, Turtles, or Blockbuster, and I probably only read the classic 1961 book years after the fact.
I was reminded of The Phantom Tollbooth when I watched Disney’s Robin Hood because one of the voice actors (Candy Candido, who has a very distinctive, very low voice) is in both. In this movie, as the Awful Din, he sings: “Haaaaave youuuuu… ever heard an elephant tap dance, on a tin roof late at night? That’s noise! Beautiful noise!”
Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
My beat sheet for The Phantom Tollbooth
Milo walks home from school robotically.
Set-up / Theme Stated
Milo is talking on the phone to his friend Ralph, complaining that there’s nothing to do, and no rhyme or reason to anything, despite what people say about the world being a wonderful place.
A box appears in Milo’s bedroom. He opens it. It’s the tollbooth! Milo finds himself in a car, randomly chooses The Castle in the Air as his destination, pays the toll, drives through the tollbooth and becomes a cartoon, and enters a portal to another world.
Milo doesn’t have a clear idea of where he’s going or how to get there, or even why he’s going. He is stopped by a rather nonsensical policeman, Officer Short Shrift, charged with various crimes, and given a short sentence (“I am”). He escapes being captured to serve the sentence in jail when he mentions his destination, so he continues down the road. At Expectations, he meets the Whetherman, who seems even more confused than Milo. Milo continues on lazily and winds up in the land of the Lethargians, who encourage him to laze around by singing “Don’t say there’s nothing to do in the Doldrums”.
Break Into Two
Milo escapes lethal levels of lethargy by deciding to stop being lazy and use his brain, but only when prompted by a wake-up call from the watchdog, Tock, who contains an actual watch with an alarm bell.
B Story / Promise of the Premise
Tock sings a song that teaches Milo that “Time is a Gift”. Milo meets Dr. Dischord and the Awful Din, who praise “Noise, Beautiful Noise”. Milo visits Dictionopolis, where he meets the Spelling Bee, whose fight with The Humbug upsets the stalls in the word market. When Milo is jailed by Officer Short Shrift, he meets the official Which of the Kingdom of Wisdom, who used to help people choose which words to use until she was thrown in prison. She explains the reason for the chaos the kingdom has fallen into. Two brothers, King Azaz and the Mathemagician, quarreled over whether words or numbers were more important, and banished the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason when they said words and numbers were equally important. Milo is released from his six-million year prison sentence for a banquet with King Azaz, who sings about the importance of words but after a heartfelt chat gives Milo a bag of them to help him rescue the princesses. Milo and Tock are joined by the Humbug and go to Dictionopolis, where the Dodecahedron allows them in the numbers mine. There, the Mathemagician sings about the importance of numbers and, after agreeing to welcome Rhyme and Reason back if Milo can rescue them, gives Milo a magic pencil he hopes can be used on his quest.
After seeing Chroma the Great conduct a beautiful sunset, Milo, impatient to continue on his quest, tries to conduct the sunrise right away, but, like Mickey in Fantasia, finds the magic doesn’t exactly obey his wishes. The sky becomes chaotic, with sun and moon fighting for prominence overhead.
Bad Guys Close In
In the Mountains of Ignorance, Milo and his friends face and overcome the Senses Taker, the Terrible Trivium, and the Demon of Insincerity, and the Gelatinous Giant.
All is Lost
All the demons they’ve faced, plus a few others besides, corner Milo and his friends on a precipice.
Break Into Three / Finale / Dark Night of the Soul
Milo uses the bag of words and pencil to defeat three of the demons (the Two-faced Hypocrite, the Overbearing Know-it-all, and the Terrible Trivium), but the remaining ones combine to become a truly terrifying monster. Tock attacks the monster but is thrown to the ground. Milo uses the Mathemagician’s pencil, powered by the words of King Azaz, to defeat the monster. But Tock seems to have died!
Saddened, Milo leaves the Humbug with Tock and goes up the disappearing glass steps to the Castle in the Air, where he speaks with the Princess of Pure Reason and the Princess of Sweet Rhyme, who confess that they sent for a rescuer who was “so bored he would go anywhere and do almost anything to get away from it all” but who was also brave, curious, and kind. They tell Milo that it’s okay to make mistakes because “often you learn more by being wrong for the right reasons, than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.” Milo uses two balloons from the Whetherman to float down from the castle as the princesses restore the Kingdom of Knowledge to its former glory, restoring Tock to life, among other things. Milo finds himself back in his car and returning through the tollbooth to his bedroom.
Milo returns to the phone and excitedly tells his friend Ralph a little about the adventure he had. When Ralph says there’s something funny in his bedroom, Milo hangs up the phone and leaves the house to play outside.