September 6, 2018
Box Office $22.53 million;
$29.98 DVD, $21.98 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some thematic elements and language.
Two questions come to mind while watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, documentarian Morgan Neville’s captivating profile of children’s TV icon Fred Rogers.
The first is, how would Mister Rogers have been perceived had his show been developed during the Internet era?
And the second — how has Jim Parsons not yet been tapped to play him in a biopic?
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? delves deeply into Rogers’ upbringing, growing up to become an ordained minister with an interest in child development and turning that expertise into the popular “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in the 1960s, eventually ending up as a staple of the nascent Public Broadcasting Company.
The film touches upon the inevitable questions about his sexuality (he wasn’t gay) and several urban legends (he didn’t serve in the military). It also delves a bit into questions that arose well after Rogers’ 2003 death from stomach cancer about whether his message that every kid is special in their own way may have given millennials an unrealistic sense of entitlement (mostly laughing off such suggestions).
In regards to the first question, then, there’s certainly enough to suggest that the sincerity of Mister Rogers’ message would be a calming salve in today’s raucous culture, even if the sincerity of his personality might not fly in the overly cautious attitudes of modern times. Thinking of how much times have certainly changed since the early days of PBS, I’m reminded of how the first episode of “Sesame Street” begins with a little girl who just moved in being invited by a strange man to come to his house for milk and cookies. Simpler times, indeed.
Mister Rogers, of course, was never afraid to introduce children to controversial ideas. He just had a more subtle way of going about it, such as striking up a friendship with a black police officer as a message of equality during a turbulent time for civil rights. Sometimes he was less subtle, as when he presented a special episode to help kids cope with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.
A healthy dose of clips from the show turns the nostalgia factor up to 11, supplemented with fresh interviews with Rogers’ loved ones — including his widow, sister and sons — and some of the key performers on the show. Mister Rogers also gets a chance to speak for himself thanks to some expertly chosen archive footage.
Through emotionally charged reflections, several of the participants look back on the elements of Rogers’ life that influenced the show, particularly in regards to the puppets that populate the Land of Make-Believe.
Naturally, there’s also a segment devoted to Rogers’ famous testimony in support of funding for PBS in front of a Senate committee that was looking to slash the budget. Neville lets the scene play out, as the nervous Rogers spends just a few minutes explaining how programming that treats children with respect while demonstrating the key lessons of life can be beneficial to their upbringing, and using his soft-spoken sincerity to turn the hardened committee chairman into a supporter of the cause as he declares, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
All in all, it’s a fascinating glimpse into a man who was much more complicated than who he appeared to be on screen.
As to that second question, well, Tom Hanks is slated to play Rogers in an upcoming film called You Are My Friend. Not a bad choice to go with the guy who played Walt Disney.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? serves as a good companion to PBS’s recent 50th anniversary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: It’s a Beautiful Day Collection DVD compilation of some of the show’s classic episodes. Otherwise, the Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Blu-ray and DVD include no bonus materials.