Won’t you be my neighbor? A lyrical line than many, if not all, adults know as the opening song to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. But now it also shares the title of a documentary about the man who created it all and the impact he had on the world. This film is directed by Morgan Neville, who directed the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom, and it is recommended that you bring some tissues with you when you see it.
Now before I get going into this review, allow me to put up a quick disclaimer up. I am an employee of my local PBS station. As such I do hold Mr. Rogers in high regard, so I hope that my review of this film is as close to unbiased as possible.
When it comes to documentaries, I feel that it must do one of at least three things. The default is informative. Every documentary has a message or story it is trying to tell, even more Avante Garde films do this as well but it is open to a lot of interpretation. Then there is entertaining, the way that documentary tells its story. A great example of this is Netflix’s Toys That Made Us. Then there is enlightening, that through that the film’s presentation of the information hopes that the audience can take away something meaningful. This last one, to me, is where Won’t You Be My Neighbor shines.
The documentary follows three characters throughout the doc. The first is clearly Fred Rogers, then the show itself, and lastly the children or the audience.
The film is beautifully paced. It follows a chronological timeline of Mr. Rogers getting his start in the early days of television and moves between archival footage and interviews done by those that were connected to Mr. Rogers. It moves between moments of information that reveal more details about the show and it’s mission, touching moments that start making your eyes water, and these light-hearted moments that make the audience laugh. We see so much behind the scene footage that explains more about the show.
With Mr. Rogers, it establishes who he was as a person. The fact that he was a minister, a Republican, and a part of the early childhood development research in the 1950’s. It also shows the creation of one of the most popular, and important, characters in the show Daniel Tiger. The audience gets to see that Daniel is just an extension of Mr. Rogers’s inner child and that through it he can talk about the issues that all children share because he shared these insecurities as a child.
And this is one of the key points of the film, is how Mr.Rogers treated his audience. The film does call out other kids show for treating their audience as children first. Whereas Mr. Rogers seemed to treat those children as people first. People who are new to this world and want answers. That’s why the very first episode was a commentary on how the U.S government was handling the Vietnam War. Yeah, that’s true. The idea being that children were still receiving the news and that some adults would avoid talking about the subject to them when they asked about it. Whereas Mr. Rogers preferred to talk to them.
Which now would be a good point to bring up that it is a slightly political at times. It does show the famous speech that Mr. Rogers made to the Senate about saving the funding for PBS during the Nixon era, capturing the racial tensions of the Civil Rights movements, and more recently the conversations over newer generations feelings of being entitled. This is where the film does an expert job of refuting that claim. While Mr. Rogers sang about “It’s You I Like” the purpose of it was not to make a child feel that the world must recognize them as being special. But rather to make each child recognize themselves for who they are. This is then followed up by one of the most powerful moments in the film between Mr. Rogers and Francois Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show.
It also shows just how impactful the show was with its audience. Most of the footage that is shown is of Mr. Rogers talking with children. The show covered topics like war, racism, divorce, assassination, the Challenger Tragedy, and probably the one that hit the hardest is clip where Daniel Tiger asks if he was a mistake. The audience also gets to see how he gets aggravated over how other shows were appealing to children. As we reach the end of the film we see more interactions between Mr. Rogers and his now adult audience. And the way it ends is also a tear jerker because of how much it feels like Mr. Rogers would have ended.
But the film also shows the struggles that he had too. One scene that stands out is a letter that he wrote to himself later in his career where he questions if he making a difference. But he finds the conviction to continue his mission. And that’s why when you see the film in the news it’s followed with the statement, “This film is relevant now.” Mr. Rogers and his show is about being kind to each other and looking for the best in people. You don’t have to travel that far to realize there is a lot of tension out there. So the idea that we need a little Mr. Rogers and his beliefs right now is a reasonable question to ask.
Overall this is a great film that talks about a great man and his amazing mission in life. Sadly I feel it will only appeal to those that did watch Mr. Rogers growing up. The last episode aired in 2001, and while a spinoff series around Daniel Tiger is on air. It’s still missing the man that made it all possible. As of the time of writing Won’t You Be My Neighbor is sitting with a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I have to agree with this rating. It’s paced beautifully the editing between archival, interviews and animation feels seamless, and its story is one that is completely unique but has influenced generations of children. Also, I feel that this movie may actually inspire some change from its audience. I give this film a 5 out of 5 and would not be surprised to see this film pop again around Oscar time. Please go see this movie, but make sure you bring some tissues with you.
Click here to find where [Won’t You Be My Nieghbor.](https://www.fandango.com/wont-you-be-my-neighbor-209029/movie-overview)