In the toon documentary “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?,” conversations between helmer Michel Gondry and philosopher/linguist/political activist Noam Chomsky become very animated indeed, as the director’s rapidly moving pencil adapts Chomsky’s discourse — and Gondry’s own reactions to it — into images. Using a deliberately doodle-y, childish drawing style, Gondry frees up the relationship between a word and what it represents, either by transforming turns of phrase into absurdly literal visual gags, or by making free-form associations that illustrate Chomsky’s central ideas about language. Simultaneously light-hearted and thought-provoking, this felicitous meeting of minds should appeal to fans of both men.
Though the term “animated documentary” might seem oxymoronic (Gondry admits that the project’s contradictory nature was largely what attracted him to begin with), the “real audio” docu, whereby cartoonists visually riff on prerecorded monologues and conversations, has become a commonplace toon subgenre. In the film, Chomsky often appears in a small square of live-action footage within the frame or is simply heard as voiceover, while Gondry’s interpretations of what Chomsky is saying are almost exclusively handled in reactive animated form.
The animation style initially employs varied artistic strategies, even incorporating yellowed snapshots (from Chomsky’s own photo album?). But Gondry quickly arrives at a fluid, pulsating linear technique that comes to dominate the proceedings. The use of outlines rather than filled-in forms emphasizes the drawings’ sketchy, improvisational nature, their wavering movements giving the impression of constant liveliness (particularly in the depiction of hair, which vibrates like thought waves). Also deft is Gondry’s use of “recycled” animation whenever a dropped subject is briefly recapped and taken up again.
Throughout, Gondry fancifully embroiders on Chomsky’s running commentary. Intellectual curiosity is personified as a homunculus toting a potted plant with question marks on its leaves, and Galileo’s questioning of accepted truths is represented as a stairway of “why’s.” Gondry might present ideas as rebuses, as Descartes’ philosophical “tools” are lifted from his treatise, or else embark on his own sentimental flights; when Chomsky first refuses to talk about his late wife, Gondry sketches a cartoon man and woman biking across the top of the frame.
While the lion’s share of the film deals with Chomsky’s passionate belief in the need to skeptically examine seemingly self-evident truths, due diligence is also given to his ideas on the early acquisition of language. Plato’s “Theory of Remembrance” is invoked, but the illustrations are inspired by Chomsky’s own childhood memories, freely and humorously interpreted as a gaggle of aunts dancing around the kitchen where an infant Noam sits on the counter. This playfulness contrasts mightily with the self-important solemnity usually surrounding studies of language and philosophy.
But not everything fits snugly into Gondry’s fairly apolitical worldview. The director gave whimsy a good name in offerings like “Be Kind Rewind” and “The Science of Sleep,” and as if acknowledging his shortcomings, he includes examples of his own fractured-English gaffes, and even audio of him interrupting Chomsky’s perfectly sane criticism of the French government. Gondry dismisses the subject as too depressing, suggesting Chomsky instead return to reminiscing about his wife.
Some might be tempted to compare Gondry’s mix of philosophy and animation to certain segments of Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life,” but in many ways the French director’s style represents the exact opposite. Linklater’s artists, while encouraged to fly off on tangents, were basically locked down into a computer-enabled form of rotoscoping, a method of tracing from live-action film. That process suggests a close kinship between live-action “reality” and its cartoon manifestation — a relationship at odds with Chomsky’s theories about language, which presuppose a fundamental difference between words and the things they represent.
Gondry’s low-tech approach might even be said to expose the artistic limitations of the big-ticket, reality-based CGI that dominates today’s movie screens. Equipped with only an old-time Oxberry animation stand, a portable lightbox to facilitate frame-by-frame rendering and the same do-it-yourself gear long accessible to students in animation courses, Gondry and his frisky hieroglyphs successfully convey Chomsky’s concept of language as the fleeting “meanings we impose on fragmentary experience.”