Like so many of you, I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood growing up just like my father before me. I wish I could more eloquently write about my experiences with the show, but most of my watching came when my mind was still forming, but it was such a comforting show to watch with the man at the center a big part of the reason why (as well as his routine at the top and bottom of the show). Since then he’s gained an almost mythical status, each new story about him only adding to it as he became known as the rare man who was as kind and wonderful as he was portrayed on screen. From 1968 to 2001, Fred Rogers spoke to and truly connected with children and young children especially on a program like no other that he wrote, produced, starred in, played piano and puppeted.
Tackling such a man is a difficult task as documentaries already frequently struggle to avoid being mere hagiographies when they aren’t tasked with chronicling men who are so beloved. A man who not only saved public broadcasting in its infancy, but also used that position to touch countless lives over decades. An ordained pastor who talked instead of preached and kept things secular as he discussed the important issues of the day to children. A man who can make the incredibly cheesy detail that the number 143 represented I (1 letter) Love (4 letters) You (3 letters) seem incredibly charming and almost magically weigh that every day of his adult life. Someone who genuinely seems to care about every human he comes in contact with and does his job because he thinks he can help the kids.
For the most part, the film does a great job with it. Of course, it tugs at the heartstrings every time you see him interact with a youngster, and there’s so many wonderful stories from his friends, family, and coworkers (aside from a couple who just exist to gush) as we see how warm and funny he truly was, but it doesn’t whitewash anything either. He repeatedly comes across as a tiresome “media is making our kids do bad things” type, the kind who now protest violent video games. I mean, it was funny that the audience felt like it nearly turned on the movie when it offhandedly shaded Pinky and the Brain (and to a lesser extent Pee Wee’s Playhouse), which while cruel to a great program (among a number of admittedly terrible ones they sampled), was not nearly as bad to his seeming hatred of superhero movies for “lying” to kids. It portrays him as viewing himself as a one-man bulwark against all that horrible, violent, slapstick television, someone who slowly loses that faith that he is actually doing any good in his efforts to fight that fight, a conservative who just wants everyone to be good to everyone and often seems lost in the adult world.
There’s a large focus especially on the early days of the programming which are always fascinating. The low budget sets, puppets, and costumes that barely changed if at all over the years are still just as charming as I remember and even after reading a number of articles on Rogers’ approach to the show, watching him develop and implement it had me riveted. The added animation feels unnecessary and while I get what they are going for, I hate how quickly this has gone from a rare feature of docs to practically a requirement of these types of them. It also feels almost too polished for a show about a man who seemed to strip all of that way and speak matter-of-factly to his audience.
It’s touching and heartwarming, able to both put a smile on my face and get me to well up in other spots. Any movie than can bring those two emotions out of me is automatically a great film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? satisfied my high expectations of it. It’s a bit rough in places and I’m curious how it would play to people who have no memories of him as a kid. Not because it relies on nostalgia for specific moments in the show’s history as most depicted occurred before I watched and even then, I hardly remember much specific about what I did, but because it certainly was enhanced by a connection on some level to him from being a kid. Normally, I’d think he could solve that problem instantly, but as his failed show for adults and a certain person who sat next to me proved, he just doesn’t connect with adults the same way he does with kids.