Far Out Isn’t Far Enough:
The Tomi Ungerer Story
Opens Fri., July 19 at Varsity. Not rated. 98 minutes.
If you don’t know the name, you know the line. That is to say, you’ve surely seen the effortless drawing style of Tomi Ungerer—prolific children’s-book author of the 1950s and ’60s—whose life gets an enlightening treatment in this documentary. It doesn’t venture into the dark recesses of Crumb-land, but Ungerer has a story and a career outside the normal job description for “children’s-book author.” Far enough outside, in fact, to be exiled from that world for almost 30 years.
Ungerer was born near Strasbourg in 1931, which meant he got to experience first the uncertainties between the French and Germans in that disputed area and then the full-on horror of World War II. Few people would have come out of that chaos with a normal life, and Ungerer didn’t, but he inherited his father’s drawing talent and came to America in 1956. He had no money, but he had good timing: The great age of the American magazine was in full flower. Ungerer’s clean, confident line soon got him work in illustrating and advertising, and his first book for kids, The Mellops Go Flying, was published in 1957.
The ’60s brought acclaim and strong sales, but Ungerer was apparently unable to curtail his wilder instincts. In his case, these took the form of scathing anti-Vietnam War art and extensive erotica. When people made the connection between the beloved author of kiddie books and the creator of the elegantly drawn bizarro porn of Fornicon (a catchy title, you have to admit), Ungerer was hounded out of the nicer section of the bookstore. His wandering life after 1975 receives the briefest treatment here, and director Brad Bernstein understands that the real story is how Ungerer made his way back from exile. Meanwhile, colleagues like Maurice Sendak and Jules Feiffer are lavish in their praise—bordering on a kind of awe—of Ungerer’s talent and his seemingly uncensored tendency to do whatever he wanted.
The main talking head belongs to the octogenarian Ungerer, who is equally disarming whether speaking of children’s stories, his collection of broken doll parts, or the time a young woman presented herself to him and offered to be his “slave.” He shrugs with good humor at these unexpected but generally pleasant occurrences. By the time you’ve spent 98 minutes in his company, you might start thinking it all sounds normal, too.