Airing from 1968-2001, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is an integral part of many people’s childhoods. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a documentary that examines Fred Rogers’ philosophy on life and the cultural impact of his beloved show.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? highlights the distinct personality Rogers had. Rogers decided to create a children’s show after watching television for the first time and realizing it was the perfect medium to teach children life lessons. What makes him unique is this singular vision never changed as television, society, and children did. Over the decades Rogers always felt someone needed to help youngsters navigate life’s treacherous waters.
The documentary does a fantastic job of showing Rogers’ determination. He stood up against racism, taught children about topics as controversial as death, and even stood up to the United States government in order to get funding. Clips from episodes about assassination and divorce are shown and prove how progressive he was. Rogers felt that children should not be talked down to and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? shows the bond he was able to form with his young viewers.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a children’s show and despite the sometimes seemingly advanced themes, Rogers always made sure to incorporate a message. Interestingly, he also worked with child development specialists and seemed to have an inside track on how young minds worked. Rogers’ respect for children as people and the importance of childhood itself are on full display.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? uses interviews with friends and co-workers along with archival footage and interviews with Rogers himself to further capture the character of the film’s subject. The interviews are especially telling as it is clear that Rogers had a deep impact on everyone he met in his life. Each person interviewed speaks frankly and the admiration they had is evident. The interviews with Rogers show his commitment to children and his philosophy over the years.
The film also benefits from moments of humor. Popular rumors such as whether Rogers was a member of the Navy SEALs are addressed. Members of the long running children’s television show also talk about pranks they pulled. Director Morgan Neville also includes clips of various Mr. Rogers parodies and Rogers’ predictable reaction. Funniest of all is the revelation that Rogers’ unique charisma even seemed to work on animals.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? looks no different than any other documentary. Rogers is a larger than life character and at times it seems as if he is being done a disservice. This speaks less about Neville and more about Rogers, but it is noticeable. The film also suffers from a lack of cohesion. Timelines are ignored as the audience will leave one decade for another before going back. Topics will be discussed, discarded, then brought up again much later. While it never hurts the overall enjoyment, it does have a cobbled together feeling.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an interesting and caring look at a trailblazer of American television. Nostalgia will hit hard for those who remember Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but even those who never had a chance to watch the show will be touched.
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