It's so weird to think of a documentary on the work of Fred Rogers as PG-13, but I can kind of get it. You see a photo of a guy's butt. There is some talk about sexuality, albeit it is fairly minimal. But most of all, the documentary looks at Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in the context of political climates. This means that there is footage of war and misery and I probably don't need my kids watching that quite yet. What I want is a G or PG rating for this movie, but I can't really contest the PG-13 rating for this one. For once, we agree, MPAA. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Morgan Neville
I think I get anxiety trying to discuss a movie twice. This is another one of the subjects for Catholic News Agency. I'm mostly really happy with how the article came out. You should probably read the article. Again, I write these off the top of my head. There's no planning involved. The ones I write for Catholic News Agency are often pretty well planned. But they also are meant to be readable and spoiler free. I'm definitely just letting the muse move me when I write this again. But I also get oddly hesitant. Regardless, I'm going to be talking about a movie that I absolutely love, but in way more detail. I kind of won't shut up about the movie to anyone I see. I saw it the same night as Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom and that movie was just such a disappointment. But to go from Jurassic Park to Won't You Be My Neighbor? is the cinema equivalent of drinking the most perfectly brewed green tea after having a dinner composed primarily of jelly beans. (I wrote that sentence over the course of three sessions. It's really easy for me to sit down and just write.)
I'm going to be honest. While I loved Mister Rogers at the age where it probably mattered, almost all of my memories were past that era. My earliest memories already involve The Real Ghostbusters and thinking that Mister Rogers Neighborhood was for babies. It just seemed so chincy. I don't think I ever really hated the message or anything, but everything else seemed like so much more fun. As I discovered through the documentary, Mister Rogers probably wept for my soul and how I sold it over to commercialism, but I do appreciate a good narrative. Rogers didn't mind taking things remarkably slow. There's an entire section of the movie where it just stresses some of the absolutely mindblowingly slow things that he did on a regular basis. This was a guy who wrote all of his own stuff and acted out the majority of it. The stress of the documentary was about how it was important to notice the small stuff. (There's actually a scene where Rogers lets kids know how long a minute is by having the camera just look at an egg timer for a minute. Just a minute of nothing.) You have to wonder if he ever felt like phoning it in. I'm not saying that he didn't love his job. Quite the opposite. But he made over 1,000 episodes. Selfishly, I think that he, too, wanted to phone something in. But based on what I saw, I don't think that was it. He just didn't follow any of the models of television that I was used to. He made things on his own timetable and with the materials he had. For a guy who was so entrenched when it came to television, he genuinely hated a lot of what television stood for. When he wasn't following a format, that was great. The data is there. Kids loved him. I mean, I remember finding him boring, but I didn't ever hate the show. I have emotionally fond memories of Mister Rogers, even if I don't have fond practical or engaging memories about it. I don't know if my last sentence is at all possible, but I'm going to barrel through because I have to get my kid to Vacation Bible School in a few minutes. That's something remarkably counter-culture about the man. One of my biggest frustrations is that I look at society in a way that Fred Rogers often does. He knows that we all know what the right thing to do is, but he actually does something about it. He has this optimistic view of the world. I honestly think that Mister Rogers might be the ultimate advocate for third party candidates. (I really don't want to start a political war here. I just write about movies.) He's this guy who constantly just tells kids to do the right thing, no matter what the circumstances are. If no one is telling you that you are loved, it doesn't matter. You are loved and that's what is right about the world. If everyone is telling you that the world can't be one way, work as if it can be that other way. He takes so many extra steps than I do that I'm now feeling deeply ashamed about how depressed I get when society chooses to do the wrong thing once again.
Normally, I don't care for when documentaries are made by family and friends. I was listening to Harmontown not too long ago and they were talking about this puff piece made by the friends and family of Frank Sinatra. Instantly, I nodded my head and said that documentaries have a responsibility to tell the whole story, not just the happy memories. This movie is overwhelmingly loving of Fred Rogers. There wasn't anything bad to say about him outside of the fact that he occasionally got too tightly wound. (Look at the guy. That makes a ton of sense.) But does this mean that we have to say that this documentary isn't accurate? I don't really know the answer for that. I'm so used to everyone having a skeleton in the closet. There's the famous meme showing Rogers giving the bird to the camera. If you quickly read up on that, he's just teaching about the names of fingers or something. Fred Rogers might have been close to a modern day saint. Honest-to-Pete, from the way that this movie talked about it, there didn't seem to be too much evil on this guy's slate. There was plenty of sadness. That was interesting. But Mister Rogers probably was the guy we saw on TV. Everyone else somehow lets you down. I don't think that Mister Rogers was anything outside of the man that was presented on the air. If I met him as a kid, I think that he would make me feel like the most important kid in the universe. The movie really let you know how much he absolutely made kids feel like a million bucks. Every single one of those scenes, I wish I had a cozy blanket just so I could curl up in it and feel good about the world again. Adults liked him, but it was almost from a point of admiration. I don't think he would make a very good party guest. But people spoke about him from a perspective of respect. There is this whole sequence when PBS was fighting for funding. I swear, the senator trying to defund PBS was a villain from a PG film. He just hit every button that made you feel like he was a creep. But, I swear. It was an ABC Movie of the Week the way that Fred Rogers just niced him into becoming a good person. It was bizarre. Like, that stuff doesn't really happen that way. It's Hollywood. Not for Fred Rogers. That guy is amazing.
I preached Life, Animated pretty hard. In Life, Animated, the movie shifted between live action documentary and animation. It made sense. The movie, after all, was called Life, Animated. Won't You Be My Neighbor? pulls the same card. I don't know if it as effective, but it does kind of serve a pretty smart purpose. One of the major motifs of the movie was that Rogers used Daniel Striped Tiger to say all of the things that he was either too afraid to say now or too afraid to say as a kid. So the movie animated a version of Daniel Striped Tiger. (By-the-bye, I had no idea how ratty that puppet looked. Like, it was the most famous of the puppets, seconded only by King Friday the 13th.) Mostly, this is the time before there was footage of Fred Rogers. The guy only has a ton of footage about him because he was on TV for so darned long. But his private life looked pretty private. I suppose that the animation kind of works and it fits in the style of the film, but I wasn't as moved as I think I was supposed to be. Some of the most difficult sequences were in these moments. It was heartbreaking hearing about the young Mr. Rogers and how he didn't feel loved. I don't really know why he wasn't loved. There wasn't much of a concentration on Rogers's parents. I just wanted to know more about it. I'm sure it's there somewhere. But the movie really is a focus on his TV career and I suppose we only really needed to know that he was a sad kid who liked to play the piano when he was frustrated. That's a real bummer. But there was something working pretty hard behind those eyes. Lots of people had sad childhoods. But the only Fred Rogers I know is Fred Rogers. What got him to where he became this savior of children's souls? You know what's also weird? How did some people dislike him? Like, there are groups of people who saw him as this evil dude and that doesn't make a lick of sense to me. He's the most wholesome human being I can think of.
Regardless, this movie is amazing. I know that a lot of people scoffed when I said that I really needed to see this movie. It was absolutely excellent. Do you have to see it in theaters? Probably not. But you should. I don't know. I just have this need to share this movie with as many people as I can think of and that involves me preaching it as hard as I am. Go see it. You can at least say that you see documentaries in theaters.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.