At the start of one Saturday Night Live, Eddie Murphy walks through a door, starts to sing a song and pulls out a sweater from a closet. This “Mr. Robinson” sings about robbing homes and conning people in a pleasant, upbeat voice. It doesn’t take much to let the audience know who he is parodying. Even those who never watched the children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood knew the iconic Fred Rogers.
Fred Rogers’ low-key children’s show was different than the cartoons and fast-paced children’s shows regularly shown on TV. His belief that children needed more than “pie-in-the-face” hijinks helped Rogers create one of the most beloved shows for children. Cynics might wonder if Rogers developed a “schtick” and faked this sensitivity. Watching Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? disabuses you of that world-weary cynicism.
This heartfelt documentary tells the story of a man whose mission in life was to help others. This calling began when he was a sickly young man, but before heading off to seminary and beginning a career as a minister, Rogers discovered this new thing called television.
Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) puts together the story of Rogers’ career in television with finesse. Using video clips and interviews, plus some animated sequences, Neville builds a thoughtful and touching portrayal of Rogers. Neville includes interviews with Rogers’ family and crew members of the show. There are also plenty of clips of previously filmed interviews with Rogers. We see Rogers begin as a producer on a new kid’s show on a local television station and see how this eventually leads to the show we know.
By the time you are halfway through the documentary, you may find yourself with a tear in your eye. Expect that feeling a few more times. In several segments from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, we can see how Rogers demonstrated his philosophy of helping children understand weighty topics like death, assassination and divorce. He connects with kids using a few puppets (voiced by Rogers) and gentle scenarios. Along the way, Rogers finds a way to win over politicians and parents.
Comedians may have mocked Rogers, but this beautiful documentary gives us a touching and fascinating portrayal of a man who cared about people. The film is a bracing reminder that goodness exists in this world and that even a host of a children’s show can make a difference.