Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story: Film Review

Lively doc helps resuscitate a long-dormant artistic career

Brad Bernstein's documentary introduces audiences to a onetime star of children's publishing.

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.

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Connecting the dots between formative experiences and creative proclivities more successfully than the average bio-doc, Far Out introduces 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.

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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