Movie Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language
When it comes to the world of children’s television programming, probably noone handled it in such a unique way, as Fred Rogers.
Originally intent on becoming a priest, his career path swung in an unlikely direction, when he first saw what was being offered as children’s programming in the early 1950’s. Pies in the face and shows that seemed to care more about selling children products, made Fred want to use the medium in a way to help children.
This led him to start what became known as a staple of The Public Broadcasting System (aka PBS), for almost thirty-five years. Mr Roger’s Neighborhood was a show where Fred could talk to children in a simple environment, have them experience new things, and send them to the Land of Make-Believe via his toy trolley car. On his show, he embodied the figure of a good neighbor, the kind that would not judge, but want to talk to you, and get to know more about who you were.
With his latest film, director Morgan Neville gives us more information on a man whom many of us have only known from our youthful watchings.
Rather than choose to have a narrator guide us through the film, Fred’s life is chronicled through remembrances with family, friends, and acquaintances. It is through their observations and memories, that the film is buoyed onward with Rogers’ ‘spirit.’ For those expecting there to be a lot of ‘dirt’ to dish out, you will be disappointed. Pretty much the kind of man you saw on your television screen, was very much what Mr Rogers was like off-camera.
My memories of Rogers’ show were very faint, and what the film revealed were things I had never realized. Notable was how Fred would take real-world problems, and try to deal with them in the settings of his show. Covering topics like assassination and even divorce, he would try to help children (and in some cases adults), make sense out of things.
Of course, he wasn’t without his own problems. From being ill as a child to being a chubby kid in his early teens, he seemed to hold onto these memories, and try to channel them into something that could help others. Some of the things he experienced, are presented to us in animated form, with the puppet of Daniel the Striped Tiger from the Land of Make Believe, standing in for Fred. In fact, some claim that Daniel was a stand-in on the show, for how Fred felt about certain things.
On his show, he seemed to want to show us a world where kids could depend on grown-ups to help them, and to give them the attention and love they needed. In the times we are in now, such things feel like a ‘myth’ from long ago. Watching Fred talk strongly about his beliefs in how love and acceptance are keys to helping those in the world, will definitely make many people wish Mr Rogers was still with us today. One could imagine him sitting down by his staircase, and trying to help relieve people of the numerous fears that have taken hold of our daily lives…and those knowing that the words coming out of this man’s mouth, were genuine, heartfelt, and honest.
Released amid a cacophony of summer films, Won’t You Be My Neighbor feels like the ‘pleasant’ alternative that not only entertains, but also educates. I do agree with one headline, that it is definitely ‘the film we need right now.’
I think for many, it will act as a ‘salve for the soul.’ This is a film that will surely make some sad to realize how long we have been without Mr Rogers, but maybe, learn a few new things about him, and take away some new lessons to apply to our world, once the lights come up in the theater.
“Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it” – Fred Rogers
Final Grade: A-