Blackwolf the Dragonmaster's Diary of Magecraft

Being a Chronicle of the Inner Secrets of, and Spells of Magick as Wielded by, the Philosopher of the Internet and Unofficial Sorcerer-in-Residence of the City of New York

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Location: New York, New York, United States

As New York's Unofficial Wizard, my mission is to encourage the Mortals of Manhattan to imagine responsibly!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Blackwolf Journeys into the Phantom Tollbooth!

As usual, Mortals, you can count on your Dragonmaster to fall, from time to time, into those moments when anything bizarre can be uttered by me Wizardly person at any given moment. Today, 24 hours removed from St. Patrick's Day, represents one such occasion.

These are the times, dearies, when one can mutter all sorts of unexpected words and phrases without meaning to. That's when I start thinking about King Azaz and the Mathemagician, from Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. In case I haven't told you --- and I advise you to pay attention, first-time visitors to the Diary of Magecraft, because these words are for your benefit as well --- one of the really legendary projects of Electric Pirates Entertainment, your humble Dragonmaster's parent company, has been to bring The Phantom Tollbooth back to the big screen. No doubt a plot synopsis of sorts is very much in order:

In 1968, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios had hired Warner Bros.' most legendary animator, Chuck Jones, to supervise production on a series of new Tom & Jerry short subjects. The year previous, MGM had purchased the screen rights to two books for younger readers by an up-and-coming young architect named Norton Juster: The Phantom Tollbooth and The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics. Figuring that they weren't really going to do anything with the Juster properties, MGM brass decided to throw both projects to Chuck Jones and his team, at the time working under the name SIB Tower 12 Productions.

Basically, what they told Chuck was, "Here are two books by this guy named Norton Juster. One of them we can use as a short subject; the other, we think could be terrific as an animated feature. See what you can do with them." What Chuck inevitably did with them was transform Dot and the Line into a magnificent piece of short subject magic, utilizing the delicious whimsy of production designer Maurice Noble, and the erudite vocal talents of Robert Morley, reading the original Juster text practically verbatim.

What Chuck did with The Phantom Tollbooth, however, is an untold, and, alas, more tragic saga. After careful consideration, Chuck began with the film's budget, and before long, he'd re-conceived the project as a live-action/animated feature. To Chuck's surprise, the MGM management actually liked that idea! "Y'know what, let's roll with this --- and make this our Christmas 1969 release!" So for the balance of summer, 1968, Chuck divided Tollbooth's production team into two units. Unit One, which Chuck himself would personally supervise in partnership with Abe Levitow, would deal with the balance of the animation; while Unit Two, led by director David Monahan, would film a live action prologue and epilogue on location in and around San Francisco, with the interiors of Milo's apartment to be shot on a single soundstage at MGM Studios in Culver City, California.

The next step was to cast a young boy to portray the film's young hero, Milo, the bored little boy who journeys into a strange, unexpected world where letters of the alphabet and numbers are at war with each other. Eventually, the team settled on young Butch Patrick --- that's right, Eddie from The Munsters --- and got him to interact in the recording studio with vocal legends Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, June Foray, Hans Conried and Les Treymane, to name a few.

But, unfortunately, studio politics then in vogue at MGM got in the way, and by 1969, the former SIB Tower 12 Productions had re-named itself MGM Animation/Visual Arts --- and worse, the new company, despite Chuck Jones having turned in his vision of Tollbooth on time and on budget, fired Chuck and the creative personnel with whom he'd been working! What an idioitic turn of events! Anywho, long point short, Chuck's Tollbooth was eventually shelved, and was not theatrically released until 1971. So what had started out as MGM's first-ever attempt at an animated feature ironically became the company's last-ever animated production.

And that's the story that has been staying at Electric Pirates for many, many years. Indeed, a few years ago, my Mortal-born alter ego Master Richard had the honor of expressing his own vision of The Phantom Tollbooth to the team responsible for the original book itself --- Norton Juster and artist Jules Feiffer --- the idea being that only a new, non-musical live-action movie, complete with all the combined visual effects and animatronic trickery that only George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic and Jim Henson's Creature Shop could accomplish, could do Tollbooth proper justice --- visual thrills that, if certain events were allowed to manifest themselves, could successfully correct the various mistakes that Chuck Jones obviously had made back in 1968. And more, the idea further stipulated that the project must be shot at Pinewood Studios in London, and on location in New York.

Well, thus far, the idea has not properly blossomed. But one day, it will. and when that day arrives ....... well, let's just say: