4.5 out of 5 stars.
It’s wonderful to find out that a person you love and admire the way you see them on TV or in a movie is just that way in real life. Such is the case with Fred Rogers, the creator and host of the children’s series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” who believed that people should behave the same way on screen as they do in real life. Rogers passed away in 2003, around three years after wrapping the 895th and final episode of the series, but his legacy lives on. A new documentary from director Morgan Neville titled “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” examines this legacy, and just what made Rogers and “Neighborhood” so special.
What makes this film so fascinating is that it isn’t purely a biography of Rogers’ live, nor is it a behind-the-scenes documentary detailing the making of the show. Rather, it delves deep into Rogers’ ideals and philosophies that informed the decisions he made regarding the show, and it discusses a lot of the themes of the show and what set it apart from other programs made for children, so it jumps around in time a lot in the middle based on whatever topic is currently being talked about. At the time (and still today) many children’s shows were shallow, loud, fast-paced, and violent. In comparison, “Neighborhood” was, according to one of the interviewees, quite radical. It was slow and deliberate, with Rogers taking his time to talk to his audience and teach them a lesson. Many of those lessons involved subjects that were not widely discussed on television, let alone on a show directed toward children; divorce, death, and, following the death of Senator Bobby Kennedy, assassination. One episode brought up early in the film will scarily resonate with many audiences watching today. That episode involves one of the puppet characters, King Friday, who is afraid of people invading his land who want to change things. So he builds a wall to keep them out. As is stated in the film, this all went down on the very first week of the very first season of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
While the film avoids any specific details about Fred Rogers’ childhood and upbringing—a rather curious detail, considering that his life’s work revolved around children—it does try to get in his head and connect the real man with characters in the neighborhood, most of which he created and voiced himself. Rogers’ was going to be a minister, and while his faith was a constant factor in his life, he ultimately decided to go into television because he hated it, and thought that, used correctly, it could be a great tool to educate people. He was humorous and upbeat, but, as some of those close to him mention in the film’s interviews, he had his fair share of insecurities, with the film stating that one of the Neighborhood’s puppets, Daniel the Striped Tiger, was the real voice of Rogers. In fact, in a few places in the film animated sequences are used to illustrate certain parts of Rogers’ life, with an animated version of Daniel standing in for Rogers.
But while this is a behind-the-scenes documentary, it makes use of a ton of great archival footage from the making of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” to other aspects of his career to candid shots that even better showcase the real man. One of the most arresting parts of the film is a bit of footage from 1969, when Rogers appeared before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications to appeal for more funding for PBS in the face of budget cuts. Leading up to Rogers’ testimony, we see the subcommittee chairman, John Pastore, and just how gruff and impatient he is. But when Rogers’ begins to speak about need for television programming like “Neighborhood” that help children grow to become positive and productive citizens, Pastore is just as gripped as we are, and when he simply states to Rogers, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million;” well, no fictional film could have written that line better.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is also packed with new interviews from the people who knew Rogers the best, including his wife Joanne and sons James and John, “Neighborhood” costars Francois Scarborough Clemmons and David Newell, and even Yo-Yo Ma. It’s immediately evident in the way that his friends, family, and coworkers speak about him that Rogers was every bit the kind, caring, and compassionate individual so many of us grew up watching on TV. Rogers has been gone for 15 years now, but he still manages to be a ray of hope and sunshine in troubled times. So long as people continue to discuss him and revisit his work, he will never truly be gone. That’s the real impact of this film.
Runtime: 94 minutes. Rated PG-13.