‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ captures the magic of Fred Rogers

Fred Rogers is at the center of the new documentary, 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?'
Fred Rogers is at the center of the new documentary, ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’

“What we do for ourselves alone dies with us; what we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.” – Albert Pike

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood now that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has come to its theaters. A powerful work with profound emotional impact, this documentary is an informative picture of show business, a touching tribute to its subject, and a needed reminder of what a strong force kindness can be for change in the world.

Fred Rogers (1928-2003) started out as a Pittsburgh-based minister who saw the direction of his life change when the medium of television came to prominence. Right away, Rogers recognized the potential it had for shaping the minds of the public and knew that someone needed to use it for good. Success with local access programming parlayed into Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the beloved children’s show on which Rogers was the chief creative mind behind as well as onscreen host and puppeteer.

Interviewed are family, friends, castmates, and crew, who all provide great insight regarding both the show and the real man. It would seem that yes, when the cameras stopped rolling, he really was the same friendly and caring figure. All attest that he was a wonderful, sincere person who believed wholeheartedly in his messages. To that end various archive footage is shown, from commencement speeches and other public appearances to his testimony to the U.S. government for saving PBS funding.

It’s all an illuminating look into the show and Rogers’s life, but filled with deeper resonance. Some of that comes from filling in on Rogers the man and seeing that for all he achieved, he was as human as anyone else. Other times it comes from seeing the thought process behind certain signature moments in the show (the story behind the “Mistake” song is particularly moving). Sprinkled throughout are new nicely-done animated segments depicting Daniel Tiger playing out a scene parallel to what’s being discussed. These also add to create an air of whimsy to the proceedings, reminding the viewer of the power of the imagination and how Rogers utilized it.

To slide into first-person mode for a moment, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a show that I have fond memories of watching as a child, but the big national tragedies were a little before and after my time. I was floored to learn here that Mr. Rogers did address them directly and always in a highly considerate manner. It’s amazing that he was able to pull it (and a myriad of other things) off. And as someone with an interest in creating media for children, the film has inspired me to not only try handling harder topics, but to treat the audience with due diligence and respect.

One of the very best films of the year, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will captivate any viewer regardless of how familiar they are with Rogers or his work. And while it resounds well at this moment in time, it – like the legacy of Mr. Rogers – is bound to to be influential for generations to come.

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