Few artists are as far removed in persona from the art that made them famous as Tomi Ungerer, the French-born illustrator and writer came to fame in the 1950s and ’60s with award-winning children’s picture books — “The Three Robbers,” “One, Two Where’s My Shoe?,” “Flat Stanley” and many others.
But he had a sideline career — erotica. And once it became known that this beloved children’s book author — contemporary of Maurice Sendak and Jules Feiffer, and almost as famous — had written “The Underground Sketchbook” and the like, Americans in particular were shocked. And his kid-lit career fizzled out.
“Far Out Isn’t Far Enough” is an engaging documentary about this playful artist, his career and his determination to go his own way. Filmmaker Brad Bernstein reveals a survivor of the German occupation of his Alsatian town (his own house barracked German troops), a hip artist who migrated to New York during the Golden Age of Illustration (the 1950s) and conquered children’s lit but was never satisfied with the pablum that the medium seemed to demand.
“Children should be traumatized,” Ungerer says. As he was. It taught him that “without despair” there is “no humor.”
Obsessed by death, his lifelong nightmares about being arrested turn up in his more absurdist, bleak and cynical work.
“I’m crushed by my ideas,” he proclaims. More importantly, he follows those ideas — come what may.
Ungerer became something of the “anti-(Norman) Rockwell,” turning simple line drawings into “big idea” covers of magazines. The film charts his career from fame to near exile, to the late life honors that came his way once those honoring him figured out how to reconcile the two halves of his career and the two distinct focuses of his talent.
Bernstein uses animation to spice up a fairly routine artist’s biography documentary. Like many such films, the subject seems more fascinating than “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough’s” treatment of him.
But any man who preaches “Give destiny a destination” is certainly worth our attention.
FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH: THE TOMI UNGERER STORY
Cast: Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak, Jules Feiffer
Written and directed by Brad Bernstein. A First Run release
Running time: 1:38
MPAA rating: unrated, with adult content