Documentaries seldom seem as powerful as when they're used to illuminate the life and work of an iconoclastic figure, especially one who enjoys greater cultural influence than personal fame. Tomi Ungerer is an artist, author, illustrator and creator of some of the greatest children's books ever published (Moon Man, The Three Robbers). He also was responsible for the most powerful and iconic sociopolitical art of the 1960s. Then he effectively lost his brilliant career overnight, at least until the world finally was ready to accept Ungerer's uncompromising vision on its own terms many years later. As seen in writer/director Brad Bernstein's elegant documentary Far Out Isn't Far Enough, Ungerer's brilliant career is inextricably bound to the seismic cultural shifts that shaped both his life and his era, and they give his story and Bernstein's documentary unexpected significance and appeal beyond the world of visual art.
Ungerer was born in 1931 in the French city of Strasbourg in Alsace region, near the German border. It was a difficult place to grow up during World War II. The Germans treated Alsatians as French. After the war, the French largely treated them as Germans. The absurdity of his early existence would find its way into every corner of Ungerer's work as an artist, and he never got over the fear instilled in him as a child by Nazi indoctrination.
Ungerer escaped to New York City when he was 24, just in time to revolutionize illustration in American print media, which was then at the center of a culture not yet dominated by television. He broke through the multiple taboos that limited children's publishing to "give children a taste for life, even if it tastes bad." Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are and a far more popular figure in that realm, appears throughout the film (in one of the last interviews before his death) to acknowledge his debt to Ungerer and express sincere awe at his monumental talent. Ungerer continued to grow in the 1960s, ironically using propaganda techniques borrowed from the Nazis to support the civil rights movement, protest the Vietnam War and exorcise his personal demons. He was blacklisted for decades after he pushed his work into areas deemed unacceptable for anyone creating books for children, no matter how successful or revered.
Far Out Isn't Far Enough has a great story to tell, and a great storyteller at its center. Now in his 80s, Ungerer remains as full of fire and spunk as he was in his youth. The film's biggest surprise is the innovative use of a variety of digital animation techniques, through which Bernstein enlivens seven decades worth of enthralling art without changing its character or impact. Taken alone, the film's presentation of the artist's work would be more than enough to recommend it. But Ungerer's tale of sacrifice and redemption is just as hard to resist. It's already been a banner year for documentaries, and this one runs near the front of the pack. — KEN KORMAN