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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Movie Review

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Movie Review

Rating: B (Good)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Universal Pictures

To a certain generation, Fred Rogers’s neighbourhood was a regular part of their television viewing, right alongside Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Even to somebody who never watched the sweater-wearing Mr. Rogers, it’s clear the impact his message of kindness had on many. Those expecting a documentary about the nitty-gritty of making his television series may be disappointed, as this is more of an analysis of who the man was and how he presented his ideas to his audience. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is certainly a sentimental film, but it still takes the time to explore his fears and personality.

Director Morgan Neville has multiple hours of Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood and archival interviews with Fred Rogers at his disposal and manages the tricky task of piecing them together. The various interviews given by Rogers are used to transition to the various topics and this documentary does give a solid indication of who he was and his general thoughts on television. The more interesting moments come from when he steps outside of the studio and we see the influence of then current events on the television episodes. One could almost make an entire documentary on Rogers appearing before Congress to ask for PBS funding.

The documentary avoids being a complete puff piece, curiously by interviewing those closest to him. There is a surprising amount of honesty in talking about the Fred Rogers outside of the studio. The film tackles his frustrations quite well and how he attempted to transfer that anger into Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood. Won’t You Be My Neighbor similarly serves as a time capsule to the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the Vietnam War was both ongoing and a recent memory. Some of the best interview segments come from Francois Clemmons, who played a policeman on the series, talking about the attitude towards homosexuality at the time and Rogers’s own views towards it. Rogers’s wife also provides some further insight into his personal life.

The most underwhelming aspect of the documentary is the lack of behind-the-scenes stories about the making of Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood. Children’s television is a fascinating industry as creators have to produce something entertaining that doesn’t talk down to their target audience. The film explores that a little bit, but not enough to given a general idea of how the show was put together. For people unfamiliar with the series, the clips of the puppets might come across as a little corny, but longtime fans and viewers will probably flash back to watching the show in their pajamas. Won’t You Be My Neighbour will definitely serve as a nostalgia trip for many.

While it would have been nice if Won’t You Be My Neighbor had been a bit more substantial, the core focus of the documentary seems be on contextualizing Fred Rogers and showing his optimistic view of the world. We could definitely use more kindness and he was clearly somebody with respect for others, particularly children and the marginalized. Even those who have never watched a single episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood will get a good idea of who this man was and why his series resonated with many. Now that Fred Rogers has gotten a documentary, when will Bob Ross be given the same treatment?

 

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE


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