Film review: In the Realms of the Unreal

Published: Thursday, April 7 2005 11:53 a.m. MDT

Carbon tracing, pencil and watercolor artwork by Henry Darger featured in "In the Realms of the Unreal."

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"In the Realms of the Unreal" walks the line between being just creepy enough to be interesting and being completely disturbing.

At least some of that has to do with the choice of actress Dakota Fanning as narrator. Her disquieting, mature-for-her-age voice lends the film an otherworldly feel, which is clearly what the filmmakers were aiming for.

It's also appropriate, considering that the film profiles the late Henry Darger, an artist and would-be fantasy novelist whose obsessions with children almost strayed into Michael Jackson territory.

Jessica Yu's unique and clearly original documentary feature examines Darger's childhood and upbringing, and how they affected his equally lonely adulthood. The film also shows how his fascination with comic-strip art led him to hone his drawing skills, using photographic enlargements and tracing techniques.

Eventually, that led him to his life's work, a 15,000-page tale titled "In the Realms of the Unreal" that also featured watercolor and pen-and-pencil artwork. (Darger died in 1973, and while cleaning out his apartment, his landlords discovered the apparently incomplete manuscript and other works.)

Smartly, Yu has Darger's neighbors and acquaintances talk about him, to reassure us that he wasn't as unhinged as some of his writings and actions might have made him appear (especially in light of his habit of talking to himself, using different voices).

She also had a team of animators bring portions of Darger's unique work to life, accompanied by veteran character actor Larry Pine, who reads several passages from "In the Realms of the Unreal."

It is all augmented by the beautiful, haunting soundtrack, which includes Tom Waits' 1978 song "Innocent When You Dream" (heard during the closing credits).

"In the Realms of the Unreal" is not rated but would probably receive a PG-13 for violent and disturbing imagery, nude artwork, vulgar references and use of mild profanity. Running time: 81 minutes.


E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com