Ever since the trailer for director Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? dropped earlier this spring, fans of the beloved kids’ show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, have been sharing their reactions to the emotionally powerful preview that has undoubtedly stirred up countless childhood memories. As for the documentary itself, which looks back on the impactful legacy of Fred Rogers, the man behind the long-running TV program, it is guaranteed to open even more floodgates of nostalgia.
“Although Fred Rogers was an ordained minister, he didn’t preach when he was on TV,” the Academy Award-winning Neville states. “He was far more interested in asking questions and offering ideas that could help guide his viewers on their own journey in life.” And with this sterling doc, the filmmaker succeeds in taking Rogers’ lead and exploring the groundbreaking and powerful ideas that were subtly communicated within the show throughout several decades.
As a result, Neighbor is a beautiful tribute as well as a testament to the power of empathy. It’s the soothing balm we need for this divisive Era of Outrage. It’s also one of the best movies I’ve seen this year thus far.
The film takes a deep and insightful dive into the off-camera life of Rogers and poses the question: Is he really like his TV persona in real life? Is he more than just a friendly, soft-spoken man with a penchant for cardigans? The answer is yes…and yes.
Punctuated by beautiful animation and loaded with rare and fascinating behind-the-scenes Mister Rogers footage, the film seamlessly bounces back and forth between the harsh real world events that played out on American TV sets at the time and the simple, nuanced lessons Rogers doled out on his show — whether it was in his living room, interacting with his friendly neighborhood servicemen, or in the Land of Make Believe, the fantasy realm in which the lives of royal puppets paralleled those of the Land of Grown-Ups.
What Neighbor also does is prove how revolutionary Rogers’ show was during a pivotal cultural shift in the country. A simple gesture like sharing a wading pool with an African-American policeman during the height of the Civil Rights movement — on public television — was more daring than anything found on broadcast networks at the time. And tackling the definition of “assassination” with child surrogate Daniel Tiger is both scary and a relief all at once.
Through it all, you never feel as if Neville & Co. are blatantly tugging at your heartstrings, exploiting your own personal connection to Mister Rogers. All the feels (and yes, some tears) come naturally, especially when the film revisits a poignant 1980 exchange between the host and young quadriplegic Jeffrey Erlanger, whose appearance on the show resonated with viewers — and still does.
Neighbor, which is ripe for a Best Documentary nod next year, reminds audiences of the importance of seeing the world through a child’s eye, yes, but it also asks viewers to stop, listen, and rediscover each other. And what can be more powerful than that?