RELEASED: 9th November 2018
DIRECTOR: Morgan Neville
CAST: Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, John Rogers, Jim Rogers, Elaine Rogers, François Scarborough Clemmons, Tom Junod, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri and David Newell
BOX OFFICE WORLDWIDE: $22.8m
This documentary focuses on the philosophy and work of cardigan-wearing children’s entertainer Fred Rogers, star of the popular show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” A former minister, Mister Rogers creatively communicated themes of empathy and acceptance using a colourful cast of puppets and friends for more than thrity years. Along with archival footage, Rogers’ contemporaries and cast-mates reflect on his legacy.
Won’t You Be My Neighbour is directed by documentary maestro Morgan Neville (director of such documentaries like Johnny Cash, Twenty Feet From Stardom and Best of Enemies) that shows and tells us the fascinating story of not only how Fred Rogers became a household name in America, but also on how a man with so much self-doubt, especially as violence in children’s television began to progress and become the norm as time went on, continued to sing, offer advice and educate children on a daily basis between 1968 to 2001. Along with the interview and archive footage, there’s some effective use of animation here as well involving Rogers’ first puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger, which he used to channel Fred’s childhood innocence, anxiety and self-doubt in the neighborhood. While Fred Rogers wasn’t as big a figure over this side of the water as he was in America, it’s a brilliantly constructed deep-dive into Fred as an individual, educator and a figure of intrigue for those that are looking into things that aren’t there. The documentary takes time to mention on how some didn’t ‘buy in’ to Fred’s calm and mild-manner nature, believing that ‘no one could be this nice’ and a few of the interviewees will mention the several wild theories that came out about Fred (he served in the army and killed people and he always wore a sweater to hid his tattoos on his arms being the two outlandish theories mentioned), to how he also became a punching bag for a few gags in the media with their parody attempts of him and even how media would spin his message of telling any child watching his programme that they ‘are special just the way you are’, meaning that they were promised success and entitlement (hey FOX news!). But from the subjects that Fred talked about on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, such as death, war and divorce, he never belittled any child and from the amount of archive footage showcased here, you can tell that he had time for each one he visited. There are two moments that are highlighted in the documentary that I did know about prior to viewing the documentary, and that was Fred Rogers appearing before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications about PBS funding and how he managed to win over the chairman of the subcommittee, John Pastore, as well as his interview on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with Jeff Erlanger. These two moments highlight just what kind of individual Fred Rogers was and how someone with that kind of voice today on television hasn’t been filled and we could be doing with someone like that now.
FAVOURITE SCENE: That sequence of Fred Rogers interviews Jeff Erlanger, a ten-year-old kid that had been left as a quadriplegic when he had a spinal tumour removed, will bring a tear to your eye unless you’re made of stone.
FAVOURITE QUOTE: “Love is at the root of everything – all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.” – Fred Rogers
DID YOU KNOW: Although the documentary includes a brief clip of Mr. Rogers’s meeting with Koko the Gorilla and shows Koko removing Mr. Rogers’s shoes, it does not explain the story behind the gorilla’s actions. After Koko’s death in June 2018, multiple obituaries for the gorilla explained that Koko faithfully watched Mr. Rogers’s show every day, and during their encounter, she removed his shoes because she was used to seeing him do the same at the start of every episode.