In the 1950s, Tomi Ungerer was one of the most famous children’s book authors and illustrators in the world. In the early 1970s, he disappeared.
What happened in between is one of those stories that seems too wild to be true — except that writer-director Brad Bernstein tracked down Ungerer, who now lives in Ireland, and convinced him to sit in front of a camera and recount his life story.
Fortunately, Ungerer, 82, is a chatty fellow with a razor-sharp memory and a tendency to say outrageous things (“I’m sure he deserved it,” he says about a sketch showing a kid being boiled alive in a cauldron). Growing up between France and Germany during World War II, along with the traumatic death of his father, led to his fascination with dark stories and drawings. When he moved to New York in 1956, he started working for advertising agencies and magazines and eventually submitted his first children’s book, about four cute piglets who get slaughtered by a butcher.
The publisher rejected the book but asked if he could rewrite it with a happy ending. Thus began a long streak of increasing success, influencing peers such as Maurice Sendak, who says Ungerer’s tendency to use ugly animals as protagonists — vultures, octopuses, boas — liberated his own imagination.
But the social tumult of the 1960s, combined with the Vietnam War, inspired Ungerer to do other work — controversial anti-war posters that used shocking images to clearly communicate protest messages. He also began drawing erotic art, publishing collections of sketches such as Fornicon and The Party filled with graphic depictions of sex and sadomasochism.
What’s amazing is that no one connected his work — the children’s books and the adult fare — until he was invited to speak at a children’s book convention and someone in the audience attacked him and accused him of being a pervert. Suddenly, all his children’s books were banned, The New York Times stopped reviewing his work and he was blacklisted from the industry.
Ungerer doesn’t apologize for anything — he’s proud of his art and continues to sculpt and draw prolifically — and his children’s books, unavailable for decades, are now back in print. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, which borrows its title from one of his collections, could have lost 10 minutes: The film spends a little too much time on his stint living in Nova Scotia, for example. But the movie succeeds as a celebration of the artistic impulse and the courage of a man who dared to follow his, no matter where it led him.