After Tomi Ungerer, subject of Brad Bernstein’s chimerical, inspiring documentary, the world of “Dick and Jane” would be no more. In 1958, Ungerer’s picture book “Crictor” featured an unlikely hero, a boa constrictor, and the usual anodyne pabulum served up to bored kids would no longer do. Ungerer followed up that success with other subversive tales, featuring such icky animals as bats, bugs, vultures, and octopi, and such unlikely protagonists as the terrifying brigands in “The Three Robbers” (1961) and the child-eating meanie in “Zeralda’s Ogre” (1967). His boldness encouraged the late Maurice Sendak, creator of “Where the Wild Things Are,” to indulge his imagination as well. “I learned a lot from Tomi,” says Sendak in the film, “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story.” “I learned to be braver than I was.”
In the photos taken during his heyday, you can see how Ungerer might have that effect: He looks like a scamp, his Pan-like features complete with a fringe of beard and maybe a suggestion of little horns. Was his ambition Luciferian? This being the ’60s, Ungerer’s interests expanded into gleeful, furious transgression, from savage posters protesting the Vietnam War to illustrated books about sadomasochism and machine sex. But he went too far when he dropped an “f” bomb at a children’s-book conference. Libraries banned him, critics excoriated him, and so he left the country in 1971 and soon after stopped writing children’s books altogether.
This, though, is a tale of triumph, not victimization. Bernstein communicates Ungerer’s manic spirit and his irrepressible creativity by punctuating the conventions of talking-head interviews and archival footage with animated snippets of Ungerer’s thousands of illustrations, including both the endearingly creepy characters of his kids’ books and the lovingly drawn and well-whipped women’s bottoms of his more adult fare. Now over 80 and mellowed into a wizened, bemused sage, Ungerer explains how his goal has been to acquaint young readers with fear so they can learn how to overcome it, and to establish for them a “no-man’s-land” “where bad and good can meet and learn from each other.”
Understandable ambitions from a native of Strasbourg, capital of Alsace-Lorraine, the no-man’s-land between Germany and France. There as a child he survived war, the Nazi occupation, and the equally oppressive “liberation,” during which he and fellow Alsatians were treated by the French as “sales Boches” (“dirty Germans”). He would survive this and prevail, just as he would prevail over the bluestockings of America. He resumed writing children’s books in 1998, the same year he won the coveted Hans Christian Andersen Award, the “Nobel Prize of children’s literature.” A scene at the end of the film where he chats with kids at a recent book signing might serve as an equally fitting testimonial. “Oh, what a beautiful picture you make!,” he coos to a toddler in a bright pink fedora. Then he adds, “You need the hat so you can go out begging in the streets.”
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.