Back in October 2011, I contributed to a Kickstarter campaign by filmmaker Hannah Jayanti, who wanted to create an original documentary to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, a children’s classic written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer. I’ve written about The Phantom Tollbooth at considerable length in the past (here and here and here), largely because I think it’s one of the most profound books I’ve ever read. As a kid, it hit me like a ton of bricks and, when I found out that I was going to be a father, the very first thing I ever bought for my yet-to-be-born daughter was her very own copy of The Phantom Tollbooth. So, understandably, I was more than a little interested in seeing a documentary about the origins of the book and the creative duo that brought it to life.
A few hours ago, I just finished watching the finished product, Jayanti‘s charming and perceptive The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations, and, let me tell you, the title is apt. The documentary exceeded any expectations I could’ve had for the project and, I’ll be honest, as a bit of a Tollbooth fanboy, my expectations were probably set unreasonably high to begin with. Even if you’re not a card-carrying devotee of Milo and his adventures beyond the tollbooth, this is just a really great film. Anyone interested in art, creativity, learning, or the power of words should see this movie.
Jayanti‘s visual palette and design sense are as precise and whimsical as the men who created The Phantom Tollbooth, and the handcrafted feel of the film itself is wonderful vehicle for conveying the story of the book’s creation. (The animated sequences, narrated by David Hyde Pierce, are particularly delightful.) The documentary interviews Juster and Feiffer extensively, both together and separately, and, through their interactions, you can still see how these two men, bursting with creativity, could come together to create such a literary classic. In addition to the creation of the book, Beyond Expectations also explores the histories of the creators, the personal and cultural impact of The Phantom Tollbooth, the importance of both education and failure (which I don’t think gets enough attention as an educational tool), and how Norton’s approach to learning positively impacted the lives of his daughter and granddaughter.
I think it’s impossible to come away from watching The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations without an overwhelming sense of affection for Juster, Feiffer, and the world they created in The Phantom Tollbooth. And, personally, I just couldn’t be happier that this film not only got made, but got made so well.
If you’d like to see The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations, it’s available now for instant streaming and HD DRM-free downloads HERE. (You can also pre-order the DVD.) To find out more about the project, you can visit the film’s official website HERE. There’s a lot of great content on the official site, including information on the creators, production videos, and a video that profiles Norton and Juster’s latest literary collaboration, The Odious Ogre.
Seek this documentary out, folks. It’s worth your time.