The subject of Jessica Yu's documentary is janitor, artist, and novelist Henry Darger, a recluse who lived almost entirely in his own mind and created staggering amounts of material about what he found there.
When he died at the age of 81 in 1973, Henry Darger left behind a visionary epic: a 15,000 page novel and hundreds of large watercolor paintings detailing the struggle of a group of angelic girls against an evil army. Darger's work is naïve, sprawling, and disturbing: an obsessive-compulsive, illustrated Lord of the Rings with hermaphrodite princesses for hobbits and healthy helpings of child slavery, demons, Catholicism and butterfly wings.
The second-hand portrait of somebody who lived almost entirely in his own imagination doesn't give Yu much to show: aside from a few interviews with neighbors, the film consists almost entirely of voice-over narrators reading passages (including child star Dakota Fanning) from Darger's books and journals. To spice things up, his artwork has been "enhanced" by simple animations that don't add much interest. In the epilogue, we are told that since its discovery, Darger's epic has inspired and influenced many artists--but none of them appear in "In the Realms of the Unreal."
As fascinating as it would be to come across Darger's work in a museum, neither his life nor his art give a documentary filmmaker much to work with; as a result, "In the Realms of the Unreal" feels unsatisfactory and airless. The unreal stays out of the film's reach.