If you're making a documentary about Henry Darger, it's probably tempting to fill every nook and cranny of the film with found objects and watercolor characters, just as the man himself filled his apartment with clippings and sketches. Jessica Yu takes the bait as she delves into the life of this reclusive janitor who, unbeknownst to his small circle of acquaintances, spent his evenings alone in his room, for decades, creating an epic tale of good versus evil, typewritten on 15,000 pages and illustrated on huge sheets of cheap butcher paper.
But a documentary on Chaplin doesn't need to be silent and a documentary on Pavarotti doesn't need to be sung. In the Realms of the Unreal might have served its subject better if Yu hadn't tried so hard to give it the same form as Darger's work. After a quick introduction, Yu plunges headlong into a cacophony of voices and a jumble of lightly animated close-ups, and by moving in so close so quickly, she never evokes the breathtaking feeling that Darger's landlords say they felt when they walked into their tenant's room in the last days of his life and discovered his mammoth creation. Yu loses that sense of scale by blowing all of the images up to the same size, and, except for a few fascinating glimpses at how Darger used tracings from newspapers, she loses detail by constantly panning and zooming over his paintings, as if she feels a need to fight for our attention.
She interviews Darger's neighbors and has some fun with their contradictory statements — Henry always sat in the front, middle, or back of the church, depending on whom you ask — and she avoids talking with any experts who might offer a diagnosis, from afar, of this strange man who was preoccupied with the safety of little girls. She wisely leaves him something of a mystery. But even if that decision seems prudent, she takes on the far more ambitious task of guessing how Darger saw the world. When Yu's animators cut characters from Darger's paintings and make them walk through archival footage of Chicago, any real curiosity about the man, and any respect for his work, seems to have been set aside in favor of movement for its own sake. The camera is all too eager to swim in the artist's sea, but it might have revealed more if it had paused to let our imaginations provide the movement, as Darger's presumably did.
Despite all that he left behind, or maybe because of it, Henry Darger is an enigma, and any movie about him will have a number of overlapping stories to tell — the ones he lived, the ones he invented, and the ones that fall somewhere in between. But the color in these stories comes from the oddness of the man at the center. Any attempts to embellish them just seem to get in the way.