Although the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor doesn’t seem like a film we would typically cover, we do love looking back at the people and things that inspired and entertained us as kids. For most of us who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, one of the most influential shows, and a staple in households across the country, was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Since the 1960’s, Fred Rogers taught kids that it’s okay to be themselves, that everyone is worthy of love, emotions are difficult yet manageable, and discussed hard topics, like war and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. He reminded everyone that no matter what was going on in the world, there is still plenty of good. Although the simplistic nature of his show gave the impression that he was behind the times, Rogers was actually way ahead of his time. He understood and cared for children in a way that many adults, especially on television at the time, didn’t grasp. He felt that young minds need and deserve more than loud slapstick routines and shows specifically designed to sell merchandise to them. Every episode theme and song lyric had purpose, and he covered every day issues in subtle, yet effective ways.
For Won’t You Be My Neighbor, award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville chose not to focus on Rogers’ life from beginning to end, but instead on his philosophies and television program, with tidbits about his life woven throughout. Members of his family, show cast, television crew, and those working to carry on his legacy today are featured in the film, sharing both colorful and emotional stories. They also provide insight into this man who, by all accounts, was practically a saint, and discussed the driving force behind his work. It isn’t all tears, however, (although, there are plenty) as they talk about his sense of humor and even pranks pulled on-set.
The puppets from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were discussed quite a bit, especially the fact that the Daniel Tiger puppet served as Rogers’ alter ego. Because of this, Neville included illustrated bits of Rogers’ childhood and his fears with an animated version of Daniel Tiger. The behind-the-scenes and show footage is perfectly-timed and drive home the special moments, struggles, and quirky stories. It even dives into sensational headlines and talk shows that accused Fred Rogers of being “evil” for making children believe they’re special without accomplishing something to make them special. Won’t You Be My Neighbor takes you on the full roller coaster of emotions, ending it on a very sweet, tender, and thought-provoking note that I’m sure Neville assumed would bring the audience to tears. Judging by the passing of tissues and sobbing in the audience, he assumed right.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor gives us so much to reminisce, laugh, cry, and think about, even long after it ends. I hope it drives the generations who didn’t grow up with Mister Rogers to learn more about his philosophies, which are more relevant than ever.
The film had its premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival with additional screenings at film festivals, including the Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF). Won’t You Be My Neighbor will be in select theaters June 8, 2018.
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