Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Movie Review
Won’t You Be My Neighbor features Fred Rogers, Francois Clemmons, and Joanne Rogers and was directed by Morgan Neville. Using archival footage, interviews, and animated interludes, it documents portions of Fred Rogers’ life, most notably as it pertains to the development, production, and impact of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Before this documentary, I really didn’t know all that much about Fred Rogers. I can recall watching episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS every now and then in the early 90s, but I was definitely more of a Reading Rainbow kid.
Nevertheless, I did watch him sometimes, but I don’t have any specific memories of the show other than Mister Rogers himself. He always seemed like the ultimate grandpa to me ñ colorful sweaters and that overly sweet and nice demeanor. I only ever “knew” him when he was already an old man. So, this documentary provided me with a surprising window into his earlier life. It was interesting to see that he was such an old man even as a young man. The people interviewed as part of this documentary were an interesting mix that provided different angles of the same perspective: Mister Rogers was an all-around amazing person.
They all had the same story: his wife, his kids, cast members of the show, guests of the show, and even a humorously blunt crew member who helped prevent the film from being too wholesome. The insight and stories that these people provided all combined to help solidify the picture we all already have of Mister Rogers. I wasn’t a big fan of the animated interludes that were intermixed with these interviews, but they weren’t terrible. They just seemed like unnecessary filler that took away time from where this film really shined: the archival footage.
This archival footage was not only of the show itself, but also of interviews Mister Rogers gave over the years as well as more candid behind-the-scenes footage of him practicing songs and pontificating on child thought processes. But the best parts of this footage? Watching Mister Rogers interact with children. Or maybe more specifically, watching how children interacted with him. They just opened up to him. For many of the kids he talked with, it seemed like he was the first person who had ever treated them as equals rather than talking down to them. Mister Rogers didn’t just talk with kids, he actually listened to them.
There was one demonstrable scene that struck me in particular. Mister Rogers was chatting with a small group of children and one of them was a girl with a disability of some sort that made it difficult for her to speak. She had drawn pictures of the puppets for Mister Rogers and was excited to give them to him. He sat there with a genuinely enthralled look on his face as she showed and described the pictures to him. Despite her constantly stumbling over her words and repeatedly pausing for several seconds at a time, he never once interrupted or tried to interject a word that she may have been searching for. He just listened.
I remember his show being incredibly wholesome, but I was appreciative to learn that Mister Rogers made a point to never lie to kids, even in the name of entertainment. I never realized how thematically deep his show was, presenting difficult topics in a way that kids could understand. Even when kids were amazed that he was able to “get out of the tv”, he would explain how tv worked and what a tv show was. He never appeared in the make-believe world of his show, always remaining in the house. And when off-screen, he frequently interacted with kids using his puppets, making it obvious that he was the one controlling those puppets. Won’t You Be My Neighbor
It was amazing to me just how lost people got in those puppets. Mister Rogers was no ventriloquist, so there wasn’t any trick to it. It was just his hand and his voice in a sock puppet, but kids would get so absorbed, especially with Daniel the Tiger. In this film, there’s a scene where a kid was talking with Mister Rogers about his cat that had been hit by a car. But, he wasn’t really telling Mister Rogers about it at all. He was telling Daniel. Even though Mister Rogers was a foot away, this kid was having the conversation with the puppet, never even looking at Mister Rogers’ face unless Daniel acknowledged his presence.
The puppet was just as real as Mister Rogers cause of the empathy that he imbued to it. And it wasn’t just kids either. There was a surprising scene where Mister Rogers was being interviewed by Tom Snyder and he brings out Daniel and Tom has a conversation with the puppet and then seems genuinely startled afterwards when Daniel redirects his attention back to Mister Rogers. I can see why this film caused so many people to cry. I don’t even have much of a connection with Mister Rogers and I could feel myself get a little teary eyed at times. Many in my theater were outright sobbing at various points during the film. I do wish there had been a little bit more about his personal life beyond the show, but I suppose it would’ve been redundant. Everybody interviewed said the same thing: Mister Rogers was exactly the same in real life as he was on the show.
It’s strange to think that there ever existed such an endearingly nice person. Is it any wonder why Koko the gorilla loved his visit so much? Alright, let’s talk about the pros and cons. Pro number one is definitely the archival footage. Whether it was clips from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, interviews with Fred Rogers, or even behind the scenes on-set footage, I loved it. The narrative provided by the documentary is great and all, as are the contemporary interviews that provided context, but I could’ve honestly watched another two hours of archival footage and been happy with it.
There’s just something fascinating about watching Fred Rogers interact with kids and then getting to hear his philosophy regarding early childhood education? Incredibly interesting stuff. My second pro kinda relates to the first one and is very obvious, but it’s Fred Rogers. Documentary style is important, but without an interesting topic or subject, there’s almost no way to create a thoroughly engaging documentary film. But this movie really shines thanks to Mister Rogers. On paper, he might not sound like the most gripping subject, but I was fully invested in this film. And that’s coming from someone who doesn’t have any significant nostalgic connection to the show or the man himself.
The third pro is how heartwarming this film is. This is, in large part, due to Fred Rogers himself. It’s incredible just how wholesome, kind, and all-together positive this man was and it was wonderful to hear that this on-screen persona wasn’t a persona at all ñ it was just him through and through. I couldn’t stop smiling when I saw this movie in the theater and I couldn’t stop smiling while rewatching it at home. This might just be the ultimate feel-good documentary. On the con side, the only issue I had with this film was the inclusion of animated interludes.
They were well-done and weren’t a deal breaker for me, but I thought they were unnecessary. They’re intended to illustrate Fred’s emotions during certain periods in his life (via Daniel the Tiger), but I think the archival footage and interviews already did a great job of that. The animated scenes felt a bit redundant and trite. I’m gonna give Won’t You Be My Neighbor 4 out of 5 paws. It’s a wonderful exploration of an equally wonderful man and presents a well-rounded picture without trying to stir up controversy. It’s interesting, entertaining, and heartwarming and provides us with a cynicism-free escape, at least for an hour and a half. I would recommend Won’t You Be My Neighbor to literally everybody.
I know documentaries aren’t everybody’s thing, but if you’re gonna watch one, this is the one to go with. Fans of Mister Rogers will definitely get a nostalgic boost from the film, but even Neighborhood newcomers will enjoy not only learning the history, but also witnessing the impact. It’s a feel-good movie that’ll leave you smiling, a bit teary-eyed, and, most importantly, with a positive outlook on life and the worldÖ at least for a little while. If you liked Won’t You Be My Neighbor, I’ve gotta recommend A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It’s a Mister Rogers biopic-like film and is based on the true friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod, who makes several interview appearances here. If you want another recent sweet and heartwarming film, you should check out The Peanut Butter Falcon.
It’s not a documentary or even based on anything, but it’ll leave you with a smile on your face. If you want another film about positivity and altruism that will tug at your heartstrings a bit, you might want to watch Pay It Forward. Alright, a couple questions for you guys. Number one: Have you seen Won’t You Be My Neighbor? If so, what’d you think of it? And number two: Was Mister Rogers an important part of your childhood? Be sure to leave your answers in the comments below so we can get a discussion going.