Review: 'The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations' Harnesses the Power of Words

Phantom Tollbooth

Adapting a book for the screen is a tricky business, and making an interesting movie about writing one is damn near impossible, even if the book in question is one as beloved as Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer's 50-year-old classic, The Phantom Tollbooth. Hats off to director Hannah Jayanti, then, for making it look easy with this delightful documentary.

A slim, chipper 55 minutes and change, The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations hits the usual retrospective beats for this type of tribute, but Jayanti is smart and subtle enough to use the story behind Tollbooth as a springboard into something deeper and more universal than a simple celebration of a book. It's an ode to unexpected creative possibilities, a tribute to friendship, and a love letter to the joy of reading and the power of words -- and it resonates on all those levels whether or not you've ever opened a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth.

Part of the film's success rests on Jayanti's good fortune at having chosen a pair of irascibly entertaining subjects in Juster and Feiffer, both of whom appear here in a series of new interview segments to discuss the rather ramshackle way in which the book came together. Flatmates, the duo fell into collaborating on Tollbooth after Juster tired of struggling with writer's block on a separate project, and their shared fondness for what they term "pizza, papers, and puns" led to a creation that people are still falling in love with today.

Jayanti interviews some of Tollbooth's biggest fans here, and is careful to approach a cross-section, in order to demonstrate the agelessness of the book's appeal -- as well as the way its intricate storyline can charmingly confound efforts to summarize the story, whether you're a kid or well into middle age. Suffice it to say it's the tale of a boy whose boredom and misguided antipathy toward knowledge send him on a surprising quest -- that, and so, so much more.

But you don't need to be able to explain it to understand its impact, or to appreciate the love it's inspired in legions of admirers, some of them rather famous in their own right (legendary author Eric Carle is among the interviewees here, as is David Hyde Pierce, whose affection for The Phantom Tollbooth helped lead to him narrating an audiobook version). Its legacy has circled back to the authors' own families, as demonstrated during a lovely interlude in which Juster's granddaughter shares her own personal (and quite moving) experience with the book.

But again, without the warm friendship at its core, The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations would be little more than an enthusiastic, well-meaning puff piece. More than anything, it's worth watching for Juster and Feiffer's witty and refreshingly unsentimental perspective on their legacy -- and for words of wisdom like Feiffer's admonition that "Failure is a process, and you have to fail over and over and over again to get at anything worthwhile." Judging from this delightful, skillfully assembled tribute, Jayanti has failed plenty.

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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