Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

When I was a kid, both my mother and I found Mr. Rogers dippy and condescending. I instead dedicated my PBS hours to the craftier Sesame Street and The Electric Company, with a dash of Captain Kangaroo on the commercial side. And cartoons, of course. Lots of cartoons. In any event, no Mr. Rogers. No cool kid in the 1970s liked Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers was for toddlers and dullards.

Yet as an adult, I've come to appreciate Fred Rogers and all that he was trying to do. He was a Christian minister and a lifelong Republican who was nevertheless determined to respect everyone of all backgrounds, especially children. His was a nonstop message of peace, love, and understanding. In Won't You Be My Neighbor?, a crowd-pleasing documentary about Rogers's life and career, one of his sons, interviewed as an adult, half-archly refers to his father as "second Jesus". Morgan Neville's film, touching on hagiography, is not nearly so arch.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a balanced but not unchallenging look back at Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, its most noteworthy moments, and colleagues' and loved ones' recollections of the Fred Rogers they knew. When someone says, "Yes, that really was the way he talked," it sums up the film's theme: that Fred Rogers was a genuinely nice man who championed the feelings of children, and that's that.

It's a sweet film, with at least two scenes that will leave nary a dry eye in the house. See it and feel a little better about humanity's potential to love and care, then feel bad that very little of that seems to be happening in the world we live in. The film, thus, is an elegy not just for Fred Rogers but for his dream deferred.