The great strength of animation is its potential to immerse you completely into its creator’s point of view. At first, this seems counterintuitive—after all, the animated world doesn’t exist outside of whatever parts are shown onscreen. Yet great animation manages to submerge us so completely that we forget that what we see can’t be real. It’s so clear how its visual fantasies relate to our own world that when it’s done, we see them everywhere, just beneath the everyday. Animation can illustrate impossible ideas; in this capacity, it is perhaps the purest form of visual storytelling.
All this is a way of saying that Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?, Michel Gondry’s 2013 animated Noam Chomsky documentary currently streaming on Netflix, is a fascinating movie when its creator gets out of his own way. The film’s structure is promising: rather than adhering to conventional forms of biography, Gondry simply records and animates long conversations between him and Chomsky, occasionally intercutting digressions and explanations. Gondry’s animation style is charmingly free-form and lends itself well to depicting the dense flow of ideas that comes out of their talks. Instead of being dry and lecture-like, the dialogue comes across as a rich exchange of ideas driven both by scientific rigor and creative impulses, rightly linking science, art, and philosophy together. These moments when the film is firing on all cylinders are generous, engrossing, and worth waiting for.
Unfortunately, Gondry doesn’t seem to have full confidence in his project, and pads it out with a lot of exposition. For instance, when he feels that Chomsky has misunderstood what he’s said to him, he cuts away into an aside where he tries to clarify his intentions. These digressions break the flow of the conversation and feel too self-conscious, like Gondry doesn’t trust his audience to understand what’s happening; worse, they take us away from the depth of the exchange. Even the animation becomes static in these moments, with a loop of the real-life Gondry, hard at work animating, crushed beneath walls of text. The impulse – to prove that the director is smart enough to have these conversations at all – is understandable, but the constant interruptions dilute the film’s impact. Similarly, the lengthy and boring exposition threatens to derail the film before it even begins, while the interstitial sequences between the separate conversations feel even longer because the conversations themselves keep being interrupted.
Ultimately, it all comes down to Gondry’s approach, outlined in the opening reels: he views animation as an ultimate tool to depict the artist’s subjectivity. He seems to conclude that when we watch animation we are more conscious of the effort it took to create (and therefore of the presence of the artist) than when we watch live-action film. He’s not wrong, but he uses this observation to the wrong end. Great art of all kinds facilitates empathy and shows us the world through the eyes of its creator; it reminds us that reality isn’t fixed but rather varies from person to person just by virtue of existing at all. In going out of his way to remind us that it’s his view of Chomsky we’re seeing, Gondry exhibits too much self-consciousness and holds himself back from fully engaging the intellectual world he creates. Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?, then, is frustrating and in some ways unsuccessful; but if you are willing to overlook its human failings, it’s also fascinating, often beautiful, and utterly unique.
Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? is currently streaming on Netflix.