Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is a profoundly simple film, at least on paper. Michel Gondry sits down to talk with Noam Chomsky and makes it into a movie. The topics include Chomsky’s theories of linguistics, his early childhood, his ideas around the linguistics of early childhood, and a number of other wide-reaching but related subjects. Unadorned, such a documentary would be eminently watchable, if perhaps a bit tedious. Yet what Gondry has actually created is one of the most beautifully complex films of the year, and he does it entirely by way of hand-drawn animation. It’s a meeting of disciplines, one that takes a discussion of language and perception and uses its artistic sensibility to point out that maybe art and science are almost the same thing. With Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, Gondry has attempted to animate the mind.
Animation and verbal discussion are equals here, and the images do more than just dress up the words. Of course, they can’t obscure them either. Clever drawings of dogs, trees and rivers help explain Chomsky’s ideas in a way that makes them at least less befuddling than they would be normally. The first layer of the film is a very effective primer on some of the American academic’s signature concepts, aided by the historical and intellectual landscape into which he first proposed them. It also helps that the drawings themselves are so kinetic, charming and colorful, executed by Gondry himself along with animators Timothée Lemoine and Valérie Pirson.
Yet Gondry’s reading of Chomsky’s own personal and intellectual life enriches and elaborates on these interesting but abstract notions. One memory in particular keeps coming back. As a kid, the young Chomsky lived in the context of his aunts. They remain some of the earliest surviving images in his head. Gondry animates them as charismatic, almost magical figures with goose necks and a sort of classic Disney group aesthetic. The aunts return time and again, a sort of leitmotif for memory.
When Chomsky turns to his newer, perhaps more groundbreaking ideas regarding how the thought of young children can change the way we fundamentally think of language, his own personal history emerges as a powerful artistic tool. Gondry is illuminating Chomsky not only with his words, but with his character. Animation is not subservient to dialogue in Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, it’s an equal partner in creating meaning.
And then, because even this level of complexity is apparently not enough for the man who brought us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry reminds us that this isn’t a lecture, but a conversation. He animates his own confusion alongside Chomsky’s ideas. On the one hand it’s a clever way of positioning himself as the audience, lending a helping hand to those of us who might not quite grasp the intangible rules of linguistics at first. It mostly works, too. Yet other times it’s as if Gondry is interrupting his own film just to call attention to himself. There’s one moment in particular that derails things just a bit. He asks a question that doesn’t translate well, and Chomsky misunderstands him. Yet Chomsky answers anyway, and is in the midst of an intriguing thought when Gondry calls things to a halt to clarify a thought that no longer seems relevant.
Of course, to call out that one moment could be considered nitpicking. On the whole, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is a very intelligently structured film, with a real commitment to the bonds between art, philosophy and the science of perception. Its ideas leap from the screen in a way that few documentaries with a similar subject achieve. Gondry has managed to create one of the most interesting films in the DOC NYC line-up, and maybe the best animated feature of the year.