NEW YORK — A violent, scatological, sex-crazed mind shouldn’t keep a man from being a giant in the world of children’s literature, says Brad Bernstein’s Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story. The thoroughly entertaining doc hopes to restore Ungerer to his place in the kid-book pantheon — a project started when Phaidon reissued his books in 2008 — but it also establishes the artist’s place in the history of mid-century commercial and political illustration. Devotees of graphic arts will love it, but the film’s appeal isn’t limited to that niche.
Connecting the dots between formative experiences and creative proclivities more successfully than the average bio-doc, Far Outintroduces a man whose WWII-era upbringing in Strasbourg made him ill-suited to conformity the rest of his life. His exposure to Nazi propaganda did, however, inform his knack for single images that punch big ideas into viewers’ heads: After moving to New York, he quickly found success in an advertising world hungry for new styles.
At first, his unconventional ideas were a hit in the world of children’s storybooks as well. Though scary elements were normally forbidden there, Ungerer and a daring editor made bestsellers of books starring snakes, vultures, and even a child-eating ogre. Interviewed here, the late Maurice Sendak (a big fan) gives Ungerer credit for opening the door to the lovable beasts in Where the Wild Things Are; Jules Feiffer and graphics scholar Steven Heller also sing his praises, going on to speak of the potent political posters he produced alongside these books.
But Ungerer was also exploring graphic sexual fantasies in adults-only publications, a sideline that eventually got him blacklisted by librarians. He stopped writing for kids and went into exile — first in Nova Scotia, then in Ireland. Bernstein tells the story with unexpectedly adventurous (and unusually on-target) animation and motion graphics. But the doc benefits most from interviews with Ungerer himself, whose idiosyncratic opinions and hobbies make the film anything but boring.
Production Company: Corner of the Cave Media
Director-Screenwriter-Producer: Brad Bernstein
Executive producers: Kevin Rich
Director of photography: Jim O’Donnell
Editor: Rick Cikowski
No rating, 98 minutes