Folks in the 40-60 age range can recall a time when “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” seemed like the corniest show on TV. With its homespun outfits, cardboard sets and hand-made puppets, it often generated condescending laughter, especially among teenage boys.
But no one’s laughing now.
In fact, most baby-boomers will have the opposite reaction to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, Morgan Neville’s wonderful 2018 documentary on the program and its creator.
There are good reasons why Fred Rogers was on TV for 35 years, and they are readily apparent in this thoughtful, touching tribute.
Inexplicably omitted from the 2018 Oscar slate for documentaries, this excellent film looks briefly at Rogers’ childhood (including some bullying of so-called “Fat Freddy”) and his personal life, as well as his death in 2003.
But Neville’s focus is the popular children’s TV show, which ran from 1966 all the way up to 2001.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” includes interviews with Rogers’ wife and sons; with folks who worked behind the scenes on the program (yes, there are bloopers); and with various regulars, including Joe Negri, David Newell (Mr. McFeely) and Francois Clemmons (the African-American police officer).
What’s so very winsome here, though, is Rogers’ tender, open-hearted love, and the way this guileless approach plays out in archival footage from his show -- especially his interactions with children (and his “interview” with Koko the gorilla, which is downright jaw-dropping).
In a way that was tough for me to grasp as a teen, Rogers has a beeline to the vulnerable hearts of kids under ten; and now that I’m a middle-ager who isn’t ashamed of child-like feelings anymore, he seemed to have a beeline to my heart as well.
He repeatedly insists on loving people -- especially children -- right where they are, which really hits home in this vitriolic and divided cultural moment. I’m not sure I’ve ever taken more notes during a movie -- some of them about Fred, but mostly just his cogent, countercultural advice on how to live and love:
“We need to make our children more and more aware that what is essential in life is invisible.”
“Silence is one of our greatest gifts.”
We are called to be “repairers of creation.”
“You never have to do anything sensational to be loved.”
“Feelings are mentionable and manageable; let us not leave the children isolated with their own fantasies of loss and destruction.”
“The greatest thing we can do is to let someone know that they’re loved, and capable of loving.”
Though I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, the hagiography sometimes goes over the top; when Rogers was termed “a second Christ,” I felt it was time to throttle back a little bit.
Still, it’s hard to complain about a movie that presents such an undeniably excellent role model -- one who once said, “Let us make goodness attractive for the next millennium.”
Rogers surely did that. And so does this terrific new film.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
directed by Morgan Neville
Run time: 94 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language