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Literature / The Phantom Tollbooth

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"There was once a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always. When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have."

A classic 1961 children's novel by Norton Juster (and illustrated in most versions by Jules Feiffer) that has also become a favorite among adults for its intricate cleverness, rapid-fire wit and boundless imagination.

Milo is a bored little boy who is never happy, no matter where he is; he is especially unhappy in school, which (since no one has bothered to show him otherwise) he considers a giant waste of time. Then one day he comes home from school — he's a latch-key kid — and discovers a very singular box in his room. Within are the pieces to construct a toy tollbooth. Having nothing better to do, he follows the included instructions, drives through the tollbooth in his toy car, and suddenly finds himself driving down a road under a distant sky. Before long he's been swept up in a grand quest to save the great Kingdom of Wisdom by rescuing the Princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason, who have been banished to the Castle in the Air and stand in dire need of rescue from the demons that live in the Mountains of Ignorance.

Along his surprising journey he meets such colourful characters as King Azaz the Unabridged, King of Dictionopolis, the realm of words; the Mathemagician, ruler of Digitopolis, home of everything number-related; Tock, the loyal (and literal) watch dog; the oversized Spelling Bee; the shifty-but-lovable Humbug; Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked Which; Chroma the Great, conductor of the sunrise; the Soundkeeper, who greedily keeps all sound to herself; and of course her great enemy, Kakofonous A. Dischord, Doctor of Dissonance, and his assistant the Awful Dynne.

A movie adaptation, an animated feature with a live-action framing device, was released in 1970, produced and co-directed by the legendary Chuck Jones, making him one of only two Looney Tunes directors to direct a feature that wasn't a merely a compilation of old cartoons (the other being Frank Tashlin). Juster went on record as disliking the film intensely, possibly because a lot of his incidental wordplay and allusion are streamlined out in favor of some catchy but extremely Seventies songs about finding your dreams by following your heart. Nevertheless, there's a lot to be said for Jones's typically cute and energetic character designs, and the film boasts an impressive voice cast including Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, June Foray, and Thurl Ravenscroft. Butch Patrick, of Eddie Munster fame, plays Milo.

In 2010 a new film version was announced to be in the early stages of pre-production, but work is proceeding slowly. As of 2016 a new scriptwriter has been hired.

The book provides examples of:

  • Abnormal Ammo: The protesters in the Valley of Sound have a cannon that can break down the walls of the Soundkeeper's fortress to release the sounds... except that because of the nature of the fortress (and the Soundkeeper's sense of irony), the only ammunition that will do this is a sound. So Milo is enlisted to bring one out — which turns out to be one tiny little protest he bit back at the last second: "But."
  • Absurdly Long Stairway: Digitopolis's staircase to Infinity. Doesn't matter how far you go up, you'll never reach the top. Because it's infinity note .
  • Achievements in Ignorance: Milo learns immediately after completing his quest that it's pretty much consisted entirely of this. "If we'd told you [the quest was impossible] might not have gone — and, as you've discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible."
  • An Aesop: Roughly, "the world and learning are so interesting!" At the end, the tollbooth vanishes, but on reflection, and looking around, Milo wonders how he would have found the time to go back even if it hadn't, when there was so much to do right there on Earth.
  • Affably Evil: The Terrible Trivium is a polite, refined gentleman — so polite and refined, you wouldn't mind doing a few minor, insignificant tasks for him. Heck, you can spare eight hundred or so years, right?
  • Agree to Disagree: Exploited. Milo gets the Mathemagician's permission to rescue the princesses of Rhyme and Reason by making the Mathemagician realize that by preemptively never agreeing with King Azaz, they're actually still in agreement, because they agree that they will never agree.
  • Alphabet Architecture: The buildings of Dictionopolis, where words rule everything, are shaped like letters.
  • Alternate Tooniverse: In the 1970 movie, the scenes on Earth are live-action while the Magical Land is animated.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: Many of the kingdom's characters — the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason, the Awful Dynne, and several of the Demons of Ignorance — are based on concepts of the human imagination, consciousness, or thought patterns.
  • The Atoner: King Azaz sends Milo and company off on their quest to rescue the princesses very much out of contrition for banning them in the first place (and/or watching his realm go steadily downhill as a result). The Mathemagician eventually comes around for this reason as well, but he's rather stubborn at first due to the fact that Azaz is on board with the idea. It takes Milo hitting the Mathemagician with a Logic Bomb before things are cleared up.
  • Backstory: Provided for the region as a whole by Faintly Macabre, who turns out to be the sister of the old King of Wisdom. The Soundkeeper fills this in specifically for the Valley of Sound.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Just when the relentless demons of Ignorance are about to descend on our heroes and the princesses they've rescued, the cavalry shows up in the form of damn near every single person our heroes met on their journey, all primed and ready for battle.
  • The Blank: The Terrible Trivium has no face.
  • Bookshelf Dominoes: Happens to the stalls in Dictionopolis's Word Market when the Spelling Bee and Humbug knock one over while brawling.
  • A Boy and His X: A boy and his watchdog, to be exact. Tock is a loyal companion to Milo throughout the journey.
  • Cardboard Prison: The prison of Dictionopolis, which has a switch that opens up an entire wall to allow people to freely walk out. Lampshaded by Faintly Macabre, who notes that Shrift is all about throwing people into jail, not keeping them there.
  • The Cavalry: The great massed armies of Wisdom, led by Azaz and the Mathemagician, and including nearly every key personage of the two kingdoms, arrive just in time to save the day when the Demons of Ignorance are about to overwhelm Milo, Tock, and the Humbug.
  • Cheesy Moon: "THE MOON IS MADE OF GREEN CHEESE" is one of the half-baked ideas cooked up by the half bakery. The Spelling Bee eats the "CHEESE" part first.
  • Chekhov's Gun: All of the gifts given to Milo by the people he meets along the way turn out to be specifically useful against the demons of Ignorance. The Trivium's time-consuming tasks are overcome by a pencil that can calculate anything; a monster frightened by ideas is driven off by the book of words; a demon which lies about its appearance to seem more fearsome is overcome by a telescope that sees the truth; and the Senses Taker is beaten by the package of sounds since it provides laughter and thus humor, the one sense he can't take.
  • Damsel in Distress: Two of them. Princesses Rhyme and Reason, although they certainly don't seem to be in much distress when Milo finally gets to them. They are however very glad to be set free.
  • Darkest Hour: Yes, Milo and his friends have finally found the princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason. However, all of the demons that they've bested to get there have called their friends in revenge, and as our heroes race frantically for safety in Wisdom, the demons launch an all-out assault, intent on destroying Rhyme and Reason once and for all. They're saved by King Azaz and the Mathemagician leading The Cavalry holding them off while Milo frees the Princesses.
  • Department of Redundancy Department:
    • King Azaz's cabinet ministers are a literal example: a department of Dictionopolis's government whose collective job includes knowing, and using at length, all kinds of synonyms for the same thing.
    • And then there's the time that Milo asks Tock about his name.
      "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings," Milo said, not meaning to hurt his feelings.
  • Divided We Fall: The kingdom is literally falling apart ever since the powers of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis each tried to claim superiority. Because almost everything in the kingdom is absolutely literal or an Anthropomorphic Personification, the feud is causing a breakdown of the kingdom.
  • Drunk with Power: The backstory of Faintly Macabre, the Not-So-Wicked Which. As the King's sister, she was placed in charge of selecting which words were appropriate for use by her subjects. Eventually the power went to her head and she hoarded more and more words for herself until everyone else was forced into silence, thus crippling Dictionopolis's economy. She was eventually locked away in the castle's Cardboard Prison, where she willingly stays until the return of Princesses Rhyme and Reason.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: The Humbug tries to join in the AWFUL DYNNE's Hurricane of Puns, only to inadvertently hit upon not one but two Dude-Not-Funnys in as many minutes, bringing the monster to tears while everyone glares at Bug.
    "No noise is good noise," exclaimed the Humbug happily, trying to catch the spirit of things.
    "THAT'S NOT FUNNY AT ALL," sobbed the DYNNE [a creature literally made of noise].
  • Embodiment of Virtue: Rhyme and Reason embody their very namesakes. When their brothers King Azaz and the Mathemagician have them banished over their Sibling Rivalry, the idea of rhyme and reason in the world goes with them, creating many of the problems Milo encounters and repairs.
  • Exact Words:
    • When Milo asks the Mathemagician to show him the biggest number there is, the Mathemagician shows him a number 3 that's twice his own height. Milo corrects himself and asks for the longest number there is, and the Mathemagician shows him a number 8 that's as wide as the 3 was high.
    • Earlier, when Milo is asked what kind of meal he'd like, he asks for "something light" and gets platters filled with literal light. Then he asks for "a square meal" and gets cubes of food that taste awful.
    • He also starts what he thinks is an appropriately long and windy speech, when asked to by a waiter, then finds he has to "eat his words", as a pile of his own (no doubt rather dry) words are placed before him. Meanwhile, everyone else has made speeches like "steak, mashed potatoes and ice cream!" and is having a fine old time.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: This is basically the Mathemagician's reaction to Milo pointing out that he has technically been agreeing with his brother King Azaz for over 20 years, despite the Mathemagician saying he'd never agree with him.
    The Mathemagician: I've been TRICKED!
  • Fake Town: The aptly-named Illusions appears to be a fancy city but isn't a real city. Despite this, a few people who live in the neighboring city have mistaken it for a real city and moved in.
  • Fantasy World Map: "The only trouble was that Milo had never heard of any of the places indicated, and even the names sounded most peculiar. 'I don't think there really is such a country.'"
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Terrible Trivium. He's awfully polite, but he has his victims do meaningless trivial tasks for all eternity.
  • Forbidden Zone: The Mountains of Ignorance, where the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason are being held.
  • Foreign Queasine: Played with. As noted above, in Dictionopolis meals consist of literally eating one's own words, so whether your meal is delicious or disgusting depends entirely on what you say. In Digitopolis the food itself tastes good but is hazardous — subtraction stew leaves you hungrier than when you began (because everyone there only eats when they are full until they are empty again).
  • Freudian Trio: Milo is the Ego: a somewhat average, but increasingly determined, Audience Surrogate boy at the heart of the team. Tock is the Superego: the cautious "voice of reason" who delivers some of the book's messages about the importance of thinking. The Humbug is the Id: a more silly and humorous character who never commits to any principles and is mostly just concerned with making himself look good.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Inverted. Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord's middle initial stands for "AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE".
  • Gilded Cage: The Castle In The Air is a very comfortable and well-furnished place, but Rhyme and Reason are quite eager to get away from it, explicitly calling it a cage.
    Humbug: But what of the Castle in the Air?
    Rhyme: Let it drift away.
    Reason: And good riddance, for no matter how beautiful it seems, it's still nothing but a prison.
  • Golden Mean Fallacy:
    • Embodied by the Triple Demons of Compromise: one tall and thin, one short and fat, and the third "exactly like the other two".
    • The boy from Infinity: The average family has 2.58 children; he's 0.58 of a child.
  • The Good Kingdom: Initially a single Kingdom of Wisdom, ruled by Princesses Rhyme and Reason. Later joined by Dictionopolis, Digitopolis and unnamed others that presumably represent other fundamental learning concepts. However, the good kingdom is divided by the time Milo arrives, due to Rhyme and Reason being banished and then kidnapped by the demons of Ignorance.
  • Got Volunteered: While King Azaz ponders launching a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason, the Humbug — ever the sycophant — is hyper-enthusiastic about the idea, describing the many and complicated hazards of same in great detail, and suggesting Milo and Tock are the perfect choices to complete it. This backfires spectacularly on the bug when Azaz not only decides to sponsor the quest based on the bug's description, but 'volunteers' him to go along, given his obviously complete understanding of the problems involved.
  • Grows on Trees: Words do because money doesn't.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: Officer Short Shrift is known for handing down Longer Than Life Sentences, but can't be bothered to enforce them, since he leaves the prison right afterwards. All he does is take people to jail and lock them in through the entry point. They only stay until they figure out they can just walk out through a door at the bottom.
  • Here We Go Again!: As Milo drives off he hears Azaz and the Mathemagician starting to argue about the relative value of words and numbers once more and thinks, "Oh dear, I do hope they don't start it all again."
  • The Hero's Journey: For a book so light in tone, it's surprising how well it fits: The Call to Adventure (with Refusal of the Call), the quest through an adventurous land with traveling companions, the Mathemagician playing the role of a late-stage Guardian, then a visit to the land of Ignorance (death), and the reluctant Return to normal life, in which he has permanently grown as a result of his journey.
  • Hurricane of Puns: Quite possibly holds some kind of record for cramming the most puns into a single novel.
  • Idiosyncratic Wipe: Azaz has his servants disassemble the dining table, dining hall, and palace around himself and the three travelers after the royal banquet, leaving them outdoors in the market. The Mathemagician uses his Magic Staff's eraser to erase the surrounding number mine, so he and the trio wind up in his workshop.
  • Impossible Task:
    • Getting to the land of Infinity. "Just follow that line forever, and when you get to the end, turn left." Or alternately, you can go up a staircase that never ends.note 
    • Filling out the Senses Taker's questionnaire, which includes such questions as "why you were born", "the schools you haven't attended", "the number of books you read each year", "the number of books you don't read each year", every clothing size you can think of, and then the names and addresses of six people who can verify this information. And it should go without saying that these forms need to be filled out in triplicate, and a single mistake means you have to write them all over again. Milo gets around this by making the Senses Taker laugh, since the one thing the Taker can't take away is a sense of humor.
    • The chores handed out by the Terrible Trivium. While possible in theory, they're certainly not worth doing and would take ages to complete. Their purpose is to waste your time, distracting and diverting you from doing important things.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Oh, so, so much. Especially when they get to Digitopolis, which is entirely ruled by the abstract logic of mathematics.
    Dodecahedron: Why, did you know that if a beaver two feet long with a tail a foot and a half long can build a dam twelve feet high and six feet wide in two days, all you would need to build Hoover Dam is a beaver sixty-eight feet long with a fifty-one-foot tail?
    Humbug: Where would you find a beaver that big?
    Dodecahedron: I'm sure I don't know, but if you did, you'd certainly know what to do with him.
  • Intangible Theft: The Senses Taker is an Obstructive Bureaucrat who takes away the main character's senses. The one sense he can't take away, however, is their sense of humor. By making him laugh, the Senses Taker is rendered helpless.
  • In the Doldrums: Trope Namer (kind of) and possibly the Trope Codifier. It's home to the Anthropomorphic Personifications of boredom, and you get there by not thinking.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One: In the preface that Norton Juster wrote for a later edition, he talks about illustrator Jules Feiffer: "Jules did get his revenge, though, by drawing me as the Whether Man (on page 18), a short, plump, balding semi-lunatic in a toga. This was quite unfair, since everyone knows I never wear a toga."
  • It Was a Gift: Several people Milo meets give him gifts that prove useful against the demons.
  • Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Officer Shrift, who merely changes costumes in response to Milo's protests first that 'only a judge can sentence you' and then that 'only a jailer can put you in prison'. Fortunately for Milo, he only really cares about throwing people in prison, and not in the slightest about keeping them there.
  • Kangaroo Court: Unsurprisingly given the above, Officer Shrift runs one of these.
  • Kids Driving Cars: Milo gets around in a small, electrically-powered toy automobile which he drove through the tollbooth. Curiously, in the Lands Beyond it never seems to need recharging, and can carry additional passengers.
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: The princesses Rhyme and Reason. Rhyme is golden-haired and always on the verge of laughter; Reason is dark-haired, serious, and thoughtful. In a rare twist on the trope, it's understood that you can't choose between the two, since both are equals and each serves to complement the other.
  • Literal Metaphor: Lots, mainly in Dictionopolis. Tock is a watchdog, a dog who's also a watch. The Spelling Bee is a large bee that can spell any word. Half-baked ideas are cakes with debunked proverbs on the frosting. The Senses Taker is a demon who actually takes senses. And many, many more.
  • Logic Bomb: King Azaz and the Mathemagician automatically disagree with each other on everything, and as a result, Dictionopolis and Digitopolis can't cooperate or even make amends with each other. Milo neatly sidesteps this by explaining to the Mathemagician that this means that the two of them have actually been in complete agreement all along — since they've agreed to disagree on everything!
  • Longer-Than-Life Sentence: Officer Shrift regularly sentences offenders to prison terms of millions of years, merely because he can. Subverted in that he's not good at keeping track of time, and thus assumes that anyone who escapes his city's Cardboard Prison has already served out his or her sentence. (That, and it's a Cardboard Prison that can be exited just by walking out the door.)
    "Six million years already? My, how time flies!"
  • Lovable Coward: The Humbug. He likes to think he's the smartest man in the room, and as such, often moves out of danger. But even though he acts cowardly, he never does anything outright malicious, and never leaves Milo or Tock to die.
  • The Magic Goes Away: The Phantom Tollbooth disappears the following day... but it's okay, since Milo has learned to appreciate the magic of the Real World in which he lives.
  • Meaningful Name: Tock is a watchdog.
  • Magic Staff: The Mathemagician's is a staff-sized pencil.
  • Never Tell Me the Odds!: The quest was literally impossiblebut since nobody told Milo it was impossible, it became possible.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason tirelessly work to mediate between their brothers, and when finally asked whether numbers or words are better declare them equally important. Whereupon Azaz and the Mathemagician, each wanting to win the argument, banish their sisters to the Mountains of Ignorance for refusing to declare one better than the other.
  • No Indoor Voice: Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord. The "A" stands for "AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE".
  • Non-Action Guy: The Humbug, occasionally bordering on The Load. He doesn't seem to answer any questions or riddles, hardly ever tries to help out, and generally tries talking his way out of everything.
  • Non-Human Sidekick: Tock and the Humbug. The former is a dog (a watchdog, but a dog all the same), and the latter is a large insect.
  • Non-Indicative Name:
    • Thanks to parents who got a bit over-eager and named them before they were first wound up, we have Tock, whose watch actually makes a ticking sound, and his brother Tick, whose watch makes a tocking sound. It's a sensitive subject in their family.
    • There was also the long-nosed, green-eyed, curly-haired, wide-mouthed, thick-necked, broad-shouldered, round-bodied, short-armed, bowlegged, big-footed monster, who was actually the Demon of Insincerity and thus none of these things. (Although he is drawn as having relatively large feet for his size, resembling something like a hare.)
  • Non-Natural Number Gag: Milo learns of a perfectly average family with exactly 2.58 children, among other similar quirks. The 0.58 child doesn't seem to be any worse for the wear, and is the only one who can drive their fractional car.
  • Not Quite Flight: Alec Bings has one of the stranger versions of this — he (and his family) are born with their heads at their adult height, and they grow down until they reach the ground. Alec isn't an adult yet, so he appears to be hovering a couple feet up in the air. He casually mentions that some people in his family never quite finish growing, and they end up constantly hovering an inch or two from the ground.
  • Not That Kind of Mage: The Mathemagician, or so he claims. He does seem able to perform some powerful feats of magic, however.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Senses Taker, who asks incredibly obscure questions or questions that are impossible to answer (such as "how many books do you NOT read in a year?") and wants the answers accurately recorded in ink and in triplicate.
  • Our Demons Are Different: In that they're not evil entities in and of themselves, but rather the embodiments of every negative trait imaginable.
  • Oxymoronic Being:
    • The Island of Conclusions is home to Canby, who physically transforms to represent whichever trait he's currently representing. For example, when he's "as tall as can be," he shoots up to a prodigious height; he then shows he's "as short as can be" and immediately shrinks down to nearly nothing.
    • Milo meets "the tallest short man in the world," a fellow who turns out to be perfectly average in height. He also meets the shortest tall man in the world, the fattest thin man in the world, and the thinnest fat man in the world. Spoilers: they're all the same perfectly average guy.
  • Painting the Frost on Windows: At one point, Milo meets Chroma, a conductor whose orchestra provides color to the world, with each instrument providing a specific color. Upon stopping at Milo's request, everything turns white with black outlines. He also meets the Soundkeeper, whose fortress contains a workshop where sounds are made.
  • Parental Bonus: If you're under the age of 12, it's a given that you're not getting about a fifth of the jokes.
    • The conflict between Dictionopolis and Digitopolis was Juster's jab at the "Two Cultures" mentality described by C.P. Snow; the position taken by Rhyme and Reason is much like that of Snow himself (who was both a physicist and a novelist).
  • Personal Raincloud: The Whether Man has one of these as Milo is leaving Expectations.
  • Princess Classic: Rhyme and Reason.
  • Punny Name: Pretty much everybody.
    • King Azaz rules Dictionopolis, a land of words and everything A to Z.
    • The Mathemagician is a powerful wizard who rules over the land of numbers.
    • The Spelling Bee is a giant bee than can spell any word in any language.
    • The Senses Taker is a census taker who takes your senses.
    • The Humbug is a stick-in-the-mud bug.
    • Canby is "as much as can be" of any trait you care to name.
  • The Quest: To rescue the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason and thus restore Wisdom.
  • Rapid-Fire Descriptors: The demon of insincerity describes himself as "The long-nosed, green-eyed, curly-haired, wide-mouthed, thick-necked, broad-shouldered, round-bodied, short-armed, bowlegged, big-footed monster." As his name might indicate, most of those are Blatant Lies. (He is round-bodied, curly-haired, and big-footed, though.)
  • "Reading Is Cool" Aesop: The learning-is-fun moral is established pretty early on through an emphasis on words and wordplay. This strategy would not work if the book were not also funny as hell — it reads like a combination of Shel Silverstein, James Thurber, and Douglas Adams. Kudos to Norton Juster for also throwing in enough Parental Bonus moments to keep the book funny and relevant.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot:
    • Feiffer drew the book's pictures because he and Juster were living in the same apartment house at the time Juster started writing the book.
    • And the origin of the book was that Juster had gotten a grant from the Ford Foundation to write a nonfiction book on architecture but he had an idea for a story that he had to get out of his head. The text describing the cities of Reality and Illusion are the only surviving bits of what he wrote before he got sidetracked (and sidetracking you from what you're supposed to be doing is what the Terrible Trivium does). He reportedly tried to pay back the grant several times, but could never find anyone who would officially acknowledge it (though there are also reports that the Ford people were actually aware of and quite happy with what Juster produced with their money; after all, who wouldn’t want to be able to say that they helped fund the creation of one of the all-time classics of children’s literature?).
    • In the book, Feiffer's sketch of the Whether Man is a portrait/caricature of Juster; evidently revenge for including the Triple Demons of Compromise.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: While having the appearance of Princess Classic, the Princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason also manifest as Politically Active Princesses by strongly exhibiting the namesake trait of the Kingdom of Wisdom. Because of this, their brothers King Azaz and the Mathemagician, rulers of their own respective city-states, ended up appealing to them whenever there was a dispute, and their status as the Only Sane Women in the setting allowed them to exert a strong and active role in spreading diplomacy and peace throughout the land. So naturally, once they're banished, Wisdom goes to Hell in a handbasket; it's only after they're rescued in The Quest that the Kingdom becomes sane again.
  • Shaped Like Itself: The tollbooth package; "for its size it was larger than almost any other big package of smaller dimension that he'd ever seen."
  • Shout-Out: Doctor Dischord's personality was a deliberate shout out to Groucho Marx's stage and screen persona.
    • In the Chuck Jones movie, Chroma's (and Milo's) body language is heavily based on Bugs Bunny in "Baton Bunny".
  • Sibling Rivalry: The conflict between the two brothers, King Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathemagician, started with each asserting their preferred discipline's greatness and escalated until they banished their sisters and swore to never agree again.
  • Sleepyhead: The Lethargarians, whose schedule consists primarily of naps, and when talking to Milo, doze off after every other sentence.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: The Humbug's character in a nutshell.
  • Sorcerer's Apprentice Plot: Milo is tasked with waking Chroma so the latter can conduct the colors for the sunrise. However, a curious Milo talks himself into trying it instead, and it goes surprisingly well... at first, before it all quickly, and rather spectacularly, goes south.
  • Spiritual Successor: A child who is bored with their surroundings chances upon something unusual and follows it into a world where nonsense reigns supreme...
  • Stealth Pun:
    • Among other examples, the Everpresent Wordsnatcher, a bird that lives to misinterpret what others say, is actually native to the land of Context. "But it's such a nasty place, I prefer to spend all my time out of it."
    • A stall in Dictionopolis sells "if, ands, and buts". Now, what would they owner say if they ran out of stock? "No ifs, ands, or buts!"]
  • Take That!: The Humbug gives a speech on how humbugs are an "old and noble family" who have been present throughout various historical events, ending it with "...and today many members of the family hold prominent government positions throughout the world. History is full of Humbugs."
  • Tastes Like Purple / Shaped Like Itself: While in the Word Market, Milo eats a few letters. The letter A apparently tastes "sweet and juicy, exactly how you'd expect an A to taste," an I is "icy and refreshing" and a C is "crisp and crunchy." (Less-used letters like X and Z, unfortunately, taste much like sawdust.) A similar effect is used for the visual sounds in the Soundkeeper's vault, and for how specific instruments in Chroma's orchestra generate particular colors for the landscape.
  • Tempting Fate: The Humbug casually remarks, "Nothing could possibly go wrong now!", and immediately jumps to Conclusions. Literally. Tock and Milo soon follow after making similarly fatuous statements.
  • Unfortunate Name: As noted, Tock actually ticks, while his brother Tick tocks. It's a sensitive subject for them, and even more so for their parents, who apparently never got over the humiliation.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: It's a fun read for kids, despite the fact that a good chunk of the wordplay and references will inevitably go over their heads.
  • Wallpaper Camouflage: The Lethargarians of the Doldrums are colored in such a way that each individual blends in perfectly with whatever it's lazing around on: the ground, the grass, or even Milo's shirt.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Faintly Macabre isn't mentioned at the end. (Neither is the Whether Man, for that matter). Presumably Faintly was let out of prison upon Rhyme and Reason's return.
  • Wonder Child: The princesses were foundlings.
  • World of Pun: There's a "watchdog" called Tock who is a dog with a clock in his abdomen. In the city of Dictionopolis people literally "eat their words" off plates. In order to start a taxi you have to be very very quiet, for it "goes without saying". People literally jump to an island called Conclusions. It goes on and on like this.
  • World of Silence: The Valley of Sound. Enforced by the Soundkeeper, who has locked away all the noises in her impenetrable fortress. It doesn't stop the inhabitants from protesting with signs and a blackboard, however.
  • World of Symbolism: With the tollbooth itself guarding the entrance. The entire world is a symbol for the power of knowledge and how ignorance is terrible.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: They keep cluttering up the Numbers Mine, along with lots of gemstones of every variety.
  • X-Ray Vision: In effect, this is Alec Bings' special gift — he sees through things. This combines with Power Incontinence and Blessed with Suck — because he always sees through things that are right in front of him, he'll sometimes walk right into trees that he doesn't realize are there.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Despite the grandiose nature of Milo's adventure taking at least several days, he's only gone for a short amount of time in the real world. In the movie, he's gone for five minutes. In the book, he's gone for an hour.

The movie provides examples of:

  • Acting for Two: A common occurrence in the film:
    • Mel Blanc as Officer Short Shrift, The Dodecahedron, The Demon of Insincerity, The Letter Vendor, Ministers, Lethargians, and The Overbearing Know-It-All
    • Daws Butler as The Whether Man, The Senses Taker, The Terrible Trivium, The Gelatinous Giant
    • Hans Conried as King Azaz the Unabridged and his brother The Mathemagician
    • June Foray as Ralph, The Princess of Pure Reason, and Faintly Macabre the Not-So-Wicked Which
    • Shepard Menken as The Spelling Bee and Chroma the Great
    • Cliff Norton as Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord and the Tollbooth Speaker Voice
    • Les Tremayne as The Humbug and The Poetic Words Vendor
  • Adapted Out: Major characters with their own chapters in the book that don't appear in the movie include Alec Bings, the Soundkeeper, and Canby.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Inevitable due to the sheer amount of content in the book, some characters see their roles greatly reduced. For example, Officer Shrift only appears in two scenes.
  • Adaptational Abomination: In the book, Rhyme and Reason are portrayed just as human (or whatever constitutes the royal family) as their brothers. In the animated film, they are portrayed as immaculately angelic colored-silhouettes, are capable of flight, are surrounded in a perpetual, crystal-like Holy Backlight and their mere presence turns the Mountains of Ignorance into a lush paradise.
  • Adaptational Heroism: In the book, Faintly Macabre is in prison for hoarding all the words in Dictionopolis. Here, she is unjustly imprisoned out of spite after the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason are banished.
  • Adaptational Villainy: The Lethargarians in the book are merely unhelpful small creatures and suggest that Milo rest and not go anywhere — frankly, they were too lethargic to do anything so difficult as trying to stop him physically. The movie Lethargarians can liquefy their bodies and combine or separate from one another. In addition, they use the suggestion of rest only as a ruse to allow them to either kill Milo or make him one of them. After all, breathing is doing something.
  • Animated Adaptation: Once Milo leaves his home to the kingdom.
  • Aside Glance: Each of the main characters get to do at least one. No surprise, since it's one of Chuck Jones' Creator Thumbprints.
    Humbug: If there's one thing I can't abide, it's a hypocrite.
  • Asteroids Monster: A single Lethargian can be split into two of the same size, and further, and then reform into an individual.
  • The Blank: The Terrible Trivium. Rhyme and Reason also count, although their version of this trope is less sinister because they are merely colored shadows in the shape of women.
  • Blob Monster: The Lethargians can melt into each other to form one of these.
  • The Cameo: When Milo is in class and many people are speaking at once, the voice of Bugs Bunny can be heard. In fact, nearly every famous voice artist of the day, from Daws Butler to June Foray to Candy Candido gets a bit part somewhere in the film.
  • Character Tics: Milo very frequently brushes his hair out of his face.
  • Chekhov's Armoury: Instead of returning as The Cavalry, most of Milo's encounters result in his getting a Chekhov's Gun — and all of them get fired to defeat the Demons of Ignorance. He combines all words and all numbers in the Mathemagician's Wand to create a Spear of Truth, which destroys the combined Demon of Ignorance.
  • Comic Trio: While they are actually meant to be taken seriously, the three main protagonists could actually be considered this.
  • Delayed Reaction: The Humbug after being stung by the Spelling Bee. He doesn't scream out in pain until he's already out of the city gates.
  • Deranged Animation:
    • The Demons of Ignorance truly look insane and sketchy compared to Chuck Jones's usually smooth works.
    • When Milo messes with the sky, it results in this.
  • Disney Death: Tock, of all people, has one before he's revived by the princesses through World-Healing Wave.
  • Don't Explain the Joke: Dr. Dischord insists on explaining — repeatedly! — exactly why The Awful Dynne is named that.
  • Dramatic Thunder: Occurs whenever Milo announces that he's going to the "Castle in the Air." — that is the Demons of Ignorance Berserk Button.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Milo walks home from school past a number of interesting sights (carousels, mobilizing fire trucks, a petting zoo, etc.) and the vacantly bored expression never leaves his face. He doesn't even look.
  • Evil Slinks: True for the denizens of the Doldrums.
  • Eye-Obscuring Hat: Short Shrift's police cap, as well as his judge's wig. You only see his eyes when he's wearing his jailer's hood, which hides the rest of his face.
  • The Film of the Book
  • Fusion Dance: The Demons of Ignorance combine into one giant monster in the climax.
  • Got Volunteered: When Azaz asks for volunteers to join Milo on his quest, the Humbug stands up... but only because the Spelling Bee stung him.
  • Here We Go Again!: After returning home, Milo talks to his friend Ralph over the phone, but Ralph then says that a mysterious package has appeared in his room. Milo gives the audience a knowing smile, realizing that his friend is about to have the same adventure he just had.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Tock, against the combined Demon of Ignorance. He gets better, though, with the help of Rhyme and Reason.
  • Instant Costume Change: Humbug gets a new outfit while the land gets healed.
  • In the Doldrums: The Doldrums of the Kingdom of Wisdom.
  • It May Help You on Your Quest: Milo (and Tock in one case) ends up getting a number of items from people which come in useful during the adventure. And some which don't, such as Chroma's baton.
  • Knight Templar: Officer Short Shrift, as a result of the madness the former Kingdom of Wisdom is slipping into. Once things start making sense again, he eases up considerably.
  • Medium Blending: Starts out in live-action San Francisco.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: To get out of Chroma's request to wake him up in the morning, Milo tries to conduct the sunrise himself. As a result, the sky becomes just as chaotic as the rest of the kingdom.
  • Non-Standard Character Design: The Demons of Ignorance are drawn grotesquely and sketchy compared to the smooth and cartoony style of the cast.
  • Not So Harmless: The Lethargarians look and act innocuous, until Milo starts to fall fully under the spell of the Doldrums. Then they suddenly start breaking out the Slasher Smiles...
  • Offscreen Teleportation: Officer Shrift does this during his first encounter with Milo.
  • One-Wheeled Wonder: In the animated version, Officer Shrift gets around on a wheel that resembles that of a rolling chair, connected to something that looks like a car jack that can be raised to compensate for his height. It's unclear whether this is a vehicle that he is seated on under his long jacket or a part of him or what.
  • Only Sane Man: After Rhyme and Reason depart, Chroma the Great remains to conduct the sky — but even he must sleep, and since Milo is in a hurry for the next day to come....
  • Our Demons Are Different: The demons here are the Demons of Ignorance — embodiments of every negative trait imaginable.
  • Pain-Powered Leap: In the movie King Azaz asks if there are any volunteers to help Milo on his quest, and at first no one comes forth. However, the Spelling Bee sneaks up and stings the Humbug in the butt, causing the Humbug to stand up suddenly and making everyone think he was volunteering. Later on, in Milo's car Humbug exhibits a delayed reaction and finally leaps up in the air with a scream (and apparently lands right back in the car).
  • Red Herring: Milo gets a bag of "happy"s and "good"s from a vendor in Dictionopolis, and later steals Chroma the Great's conductor's baton after his botched attempt at making a sunrise. Neither sees any use.
  • Roger Rabbit Effect: Milo turns into an animated character upon crossing the tollbooth. He spends about a minute going back and forth in disbelief until the tollbooth announcer tells him to get on with it.
  • Stop Trick: Used to show facets of the tollbooth appearing out of nowhere when Milo first opens the package. Then the process is reversed when it prepares to leave.
  • Tempting Fate: They meet the Demon of Insincerity, a small Chuzzle with a very big mouth. The Humbug declares that the worst is over... and then they run into the far more dangerous Gelatinous Giant.
    Giant: And what have we here? I see... Breakfast!
  • Victorious Chorus: "Rhyme and Reason Reign."
  • Villain Song: "Don't Say There's Nothing to Do in the Doldrums" performed by The Lethargarians, a group of sinister lazy slimy creatures (voiced by Mel Blanc and Thurl Ravenscroft).
  • Vocal Dissonance: The shortest of King Azaz's royal palace guards has the deepest voice.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: All the Demons of Ignorance have a simple weakness which Milo quickly finds — except for the combined Demon. His weakness is Truth... which Milo has, in the form of Azaz's words and the Mathemagician's numbers, which when combined, form the Spear of Truth.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Tock says that they'll come back for her, but The Which is never shown again after Milo and Tock leave the dungeon. Unless you count her appearing in the penultimate song when she sings her part, free and not in prison.
    • Since Dr. Dischord's regained his interest in harmony, what's going to happen to The Awful Dynne?
  • World-Healing Wave: Done by Rhyme and Reason after being set free.