If ever the time was right for Mister Rogers, it has to be now.
Hitting once again into unexpected hidden areas of the pop culture zeitgeist, Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville delivers a touching, fascinating and perfectly timed study of the magic the legendary children’s television host weaved in the simplest ways possible for generations of young people weaned on his popular PBS series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran for more than 30 years — from 1968-2001. With the help of puppets like Daniel Tiger Tail and Rogers’ familiar cardigan sweater and tennis shoes, there was a soothing, assured tone of kindness and calm that is striking when seen with the times in which we currently live, with the Trump Era and 24/7 nonstop cable assaults.
Of course, this was a children’s show, but nevertheless, when seen again in the context of Neville’s illuminating documentary portrait of the man and his work, it looks like something lifted out of a completely different era and sensibility. That isn’t to say this cinematic portrait turns Fred Rogers into some kind of saint, but it does show a big void developed after his 2003 death. It also doesn’t skimp on some scattered negative opinions from critics of Rogers, who say he misguidedly made every kid believe they were “special,”, though that was not grounded in reality, nor did it prepare them for the cruel world out there beyond this unique neighborhood.
Using extensive footage from the series, as well as numerous interviews with friends, family, crew members and intriguing archival interviews with Rogers over the years, Neville produces less of a biopic and more of a film celebrating his beliefs and ideas. They began with a career headed for the seminary, but that was detoured into TV when Rogers realized the medium had much more potential for good than it had been using up to that time. It is noted that Rogers was a Republican, but politics never entered into the show, except in some uncanny ways when viewing it now. There is some particularly amusing footage with the puppet king who is so paranoid that he is building a wall around his kingdom. Sound familiar? And it is interesting to note the show didn’t shy away from issues of the day, including one episode in which Rogers tries to explain to his puppets what the word “assassination” means after Robert Kennedy was killed.
Neville won his Oscar for 20 Feet from Stardom, an immensely entertaining and moving portrait of backup singers. He also tackled the TV rivalry and unlikely bond between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, political opposites who were the basis for his docu, Best of Enemies. It is typical of the kind of offbeat pop culture topics to which Neville is attracted. But execution is everything, and as I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is his masterpiece. And if you find yourself unmoved to tears at some point in this film, you probably are dead.
Producers are Caryn Capotosto, Nicholas Ma and Neville. Focus Features puts it into limited release Friday. It richly deserves to be seen. One of the year’s best and kindest films.
Do you plan to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Let us know what you think.