Morgan Neville's documentary about Fred Rogers is sweet, earnest, and filled with a wellspring of love for one of television's kindest souls.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? succeeds in telling the story of one of the most beloved heroes of so many of our childhoods. But where it shines brightest is showing the persistent inner voice of Mr. Fred Rogers – a voice that inspired him to help every child understand their innate worth, all while battling to convince himself of his own.
Morgan Neville’s (20 Feet from Stardom) recounting of the history of Fred Rogers begins not at his birth, but at the birth of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. From the moment that Fred chooses to leave the seminary at a young age, we follow the lifelong ambition of one genuinely empathetic man. His goal: simply let children know that they are perfect the way they are and that they are loved. Despite this simple ambition, Fred Rogers’ hard work, dedication and kindness led him to become the voice of a whole generation of children, helping them navigate the struggles of daily life as well as the fear of worldly horrors, such as war, assassinations, and racism.
Once Neville establishes that base, he carefully allows us into Fred Rogers’ childhood, revealing the true root of his genuine caring. Using animation to depict this secret world, this side of Fred’s life is told through the scope of his first (and favorite) puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger. We are shown the World of Make Believe, a world Fred himself created to escape a childhood of sickness, lonesomeness, and the fear of displaying his own feelings. Not only is Ariel Costa and Rodrigo Miguel Rangel’s animation stunning, but it often creates some of the most evocative moments in the piece. Plus, it only feels right that the most personal side of Fred Rogers is presented to us through the eyes of the puppet that gave him the most liberty to be his true self.
However, the most striking and heart-wrenching strain of the film focuses on a side of Rogers we never saw in his adult life. – a side that, despite all his accomplishments, convinced him he hadn’t changed the world for the better at all. There are moments, usually after great tragedy, we see a side of him we don’t normally associate with our favorite neighbor – defeated, saddened, downtrodden. While these moments are genuinely crushing to see, it becomes all the more apparent that it was this doubtful inner voice that allowed him to connect to children so well.
Neville illustrates this connection most adroitly through a brief segment on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, where Daniel Tiger worries that he might have “been a mistake.” In this moment, Daniel sings about his fears while a friend sings along with him, expressing her love for Daniel just the way he is. This moment shows the true heart of Fred Rogers -he knows we all carry that anxiety that nothing we do matters. That even when we are surrounded by friends telling us otherwise, the voice of doubt is still ferocious enough to stay there.
But Rogers knew the only way to make it quieter: through the voice of someone else telling us what we need to hear. That we are perfect just as we are, and that we are loved.
In Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Neville does a brilliant job not only showing the world the influence Fred had on it, but also to quiet that voice of doubt that Fred carried until his final years. This film isn’t just brilliant and touching, but a wonderful gift to the generations moved by Rogers’ calls to kindness, decency and sensitivity. While our best neighbor may have worried that he didn’t change anything for the better, this gathering of voices does exactly what Fred would have wanted: to make those doubts all the quieter under a rousing chorus of love.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? comes to your neighborhood June 8th.