Cinema: ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ A Poignant Reflection On The Philosophy Of Mister Rodgers
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a slow burn documentary that tells the story of Fred Rogers and his insanely successful kid’s education program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. It’s an emotional and nostalgia-filled ride that’s captivating from beginning to end. Anyone who grew up watching Mister Rodgers will find themselves hit wave after wave of the warm fuzzies and maybe even some tears. It’s a genuinely sweet film, that clearly had a lot of love and time put into it. Not everyone may connect to it as strongly as people who grew up with Mister Rodgers, but either way, it is a fascinating look into who Mister Rodgers was on and off the screen.
One fear I had going into the film was that the documentary would try to paint Mr. Rodgers as perfect. Luckily, this wasn’t the case as Won’t You Be My Neighbor? made sure to let audiences know Mister Rogers, despite being a great man, had a lot of self-doubts and made mistakes. He had a lot of anger towards TV that he didn’t feel was as meaningful, and once he even demanded that a gay actor on his show hide his sexuality due to fear of losing sponsors. Keeping this in mind though, Rogers was a huge proponent of accepting people just the way they are. I think he would have wanted people to know even he struggled from time to time. The film also explored Mister Rodger’s more mischievous side as a cast member recounted a time when he was pranked by Rodgers. Showing that even Mister Rodgers could make mistakes and didn’t always act properly helps audience members believe that anyone could become a Mister Rodgers like figure. An ideal Rogers would have likely endorsed.
Much like Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was educational and good-hearted. It feels very much in the same vein as something the actual Fred Rogers would have made. With the inclusion of Fred’s wife, I think it’s safe to say this film would have had Mister Rogers’ stamp of approval. There are so many interesting facts about Mister Roger’s life and he truly is someone worth remembering. It’s extremely rare to find someone so good-natured and kind, and as highlighted in the film the world could really use another person like him right about now.
Something I was not prepared for was how emotional Won’t You Be My Neighbor? would be at points. The second It's a Beautiful Day in This Neighborhood started playing at the beginning of the film, I was already teary-eyed and ridden with goosebumps. It’s a testament to how strong nostalgia can be when used in the right way. The film was also full of many other touching moments that didn’t rely on nostalgia such as any time Mister Rodgers made a connection with a child. Only the toughest of audience-goers will be able to watch this film without stirring up some heartwarming feelings.
The team who collected the archival footage did a wonderful job. Even though Mister Rodgers has been gone for over ten years, so much interview footage of Fred Rodgers exists that it felt as if he was interviewed specifically for this film. Every piece of archival footage used felt as though it had a purpose and it never felt as though clips were just thrown in to kill time. Additionally, the interviews conducted specifically for the documentary were effective and well varied. Not only were the crew able to interview Fred Rogers’ still living wife and sons, but also actors who worked on his show, along with staff members that worked behind the scenes. With a variety of interviewees, audiences are given plenty of different perspectives on who Fred Rogers was.
Additionally, the film included several animated scenes to help recreate the mindset of Fred Rogers as a child. They were eerie and moody but greatly helped emphasize what the world would’ve looked through the lens of a child. They reminded me of Neighborhood of Make-Believe where all Mister Rodgers’ puppets resided. Mister Rodgers always believed it was important to differentiate what was real and not, and these dreamlike scenes seemed to be in line with this kind of thinking.
While going in blind to some documentaries is almost recommended, that isn’t the case for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Much of the effectiveness of the film relies on audience members’ nostalgia for Mister Rodgers and his show. Even though there’s still plenty to enjoy without knowing anything about Rogers or his neighborhood, many of the scenes and musical numbers will lose their punch for audience members whose childhood was Rogers free. This is hardly a huge flaw, but considering the movie does drag a tiny bit at points, these small drags might feel much larger without the emotional resonance to keep audiences engaged. It’s hard to tell, but it definitely makes me a little more hesitant to recommend this film to anyone who didn’t grow up with Mister Rodgers.
Overall, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a good watch. It’s not the most exciting or perspective changing experience, but it’s definitely a feel-good movie full of plenty of interesting history and emotion. Anyone interested in learning more about Fred Rodgers or anyone who grew up watching him should definitely check it out. Despite dragging in some points, with only a ninety-three minute run time, it’s mostly a breezy watch that’s a great way for audience members to relieve some of the nostalgia from their early childhood.