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Like its subject, ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ is short on flare, but long on substance

Growing up, I thought of Mr. Rogers as little more than the hokey cornball that came on after “Sesame Street.”

However, after having watched the documentary detailing his career … well, I still think of him as the hokey cornball that came on after “Sesame Street,” but I have a newfound appreciation for him and his show.

David Newell (Mr. McFeely) and Fred Rogers (right) from the show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood in the film, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a Focus Features release. (Photo by Lynn Johnson)

Featuring archived interviews with the man himself, his family, and former co-stars, “Won't You Be My Neighbor?” details Rogers' rise from would-be pastor to local television host in Pittsburgh to cultural icon whose influence spanned generations.

It also answers several pressing questions I, and I’m sure many others, have always wondered about.

Was the Mr. Rogers we saw on screen (kind, friendly, compassionate) the real Fred Rogers? Where’d the Land of Make Believe come from? What about those creepy puppets – how’d those terrifying little weirdos come to be?

Fred Rogers with Daniel Tiger from his show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood in the film, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a Focus Features release. (Photo courtesy of The Fred Rogers Company)

It also answers the age old question, “What did Mr. Rogers look like in a bathing suit?” (OK, so maybe that’s not a question anyone ever wondered about, but it is answered.)

For me, there were really two standout sections of the film – the story of when Rogers testified before Congress to help PBS keep its government funding, and how he sprang into action following the explosion of the Challenger.

The rest of the film was presented in such a way – either through a key interview of archived footage – that even the relatively mundane came off as thoughtful and interesting. Given the pedigree of director Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom” and “The Music of Strangers”) isn’t hard to believe.

Fred Rogers testifying before the United States Senate in the film, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a Focus Features release. (Photo by Robert Lerner / Library of Congress)

There’s really only two things that come to mind as “complaints.”

First, it’s a bit slow – even for a documentary. It’s complete and methodical, which should not be confused with slow and plodding, because it most certainly isn’t. It hits on a lot of topics, but doesn’t always focus on the most interesting ones, allowing some of the more “boring” anecdotes drag on a tad too long. Given the subject of the film, the choice of substance over flash isn’t surprising.

The only other thing I would have liked to see a bit more of is young Fred Rogers, and what led him down the path he chose. The hows and whys of his TV career are discussed, and there are hints given as to why he made it his life’s mission to make every child know they matter, but they’re never fully explained. To me, seeing why a person ticks the way they do is much more interesting in seeing how they tick.

If you are/were a fan of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” isn’t likely to do anything to change that. If, like me, you weren’t a fan going in, you might walk out feeling completely differently, or at least with a newfound appreciation for the man.

★★★★ of ★★★★★

© 2020 by Man Versus Movie

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