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Michael Leunig is literally an Australian National Living Treasure: it turns out, as revealed in The Leunig Fragments, an alternatively revealing and frustrating feature-length cinema-release documentary about the (generally) adored cartoonist, someone calls you up from the National Trust and asks if you’d like to be one. (There are currently 79; naturally, when you die, you drop off the list). In person – and this documentary features him a lot, sitting for the camera in his studio and occasionally his home, both in Melbourne – he is perhaps as you’d expect, which is to say philosophical, soft, and whimsical.
It is that dreaded but oh-so-precise word, whimsy, that will forever be associated with Leunig’s vast body of work; how much you can stomach the stuff will determine how much, perhaps, you’ll enjoy this edge-of-hagiography. I personally have always admired his work, but I found the man himself painful to listen to, literally: his voice drove me bananas, high and soft and never completing a thought with determination but letting every single sentence, phrase and utterance drift off into ellipsis…
Frankly, he sounds utterly mannered and affected, and the documentary is at its best when not pointing its camera at him. Hearing others talk about him is more revealing, but there’s more to his story than shown in these ninety-seven minutes worth of ‘fragments’. The most fascinating moment is a simple title card telling us that “only one member of [Leunig’s] family” was willing to appear in the film; that speaks volumes, but the film doesn’t read them beyond an introduction. Like the minute or so spent on Leunig’s pro-anti-vaccination stance or other controversies he’s found himself in, every time something comes along to trouble the nice narrative, the film takes a peek, then looks away, almost ashamed to denigrate its subject and, clearly, its hero.