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‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ revives good old-fashioned love and wholesomeness

The legacy of Fred Rogers lives on

Fred Rogers in "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." (Courtesy of Focus Features)

While I was too young to really know Mr. Rogers, for some reason, I knew who he was — like certain public figures that you know by name and by fame. Before I walked into the theater, I had some faint memories of knowing “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” but I can’t remember if I had ever watched it — was this some kind of bizarre Mandela effect moment or had I really watched some syndicated reruns and his gentle voice that charmed millions of children throughout the 20th century also charmed me?

No matter what the truth really was, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” paints an empathetic picture of America’s hero that — right now — we need but don’t deserve. The man with the colorful sweaters, demure personality, soothing voice and beautiful piano skills — a lifelong Republican, as the film is quick to point out in passing but quickly tears down in its present connotation — was a child whisperer and completely went against everything that television and media is nowadays — with great success.

Premiering at Sundance in January to critical acclaim, this Mr. Rogers film isn’t quite a biography documentary, nor is it a close examination of Fred Rogers’ famous show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” that ran from 1968 to 2001. Instead, “Neighbor” takes on the legacy of his iconic show, intertwined with the legacy of Rogers’ himself. They’re unconditionally related, one never standing without the other — Rogers was the writer, producer and star of the show, and he voiced most of the puppet characters on the show.

All in all, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (the eponymous title song that Rogers sings at the beginning of every episode) is a tender film. Director Morgan Neville makes Rogers — the minister with a genuine, eager interest in early child development — into an unlikely star, someone who showed that maybe there really is something special and deep about children. He trusted in the simplicity of himself on each show, and children listened.

That’s a feat that few can claim today. “Neighbor” intersperses archival footage with commentary from Rogers’ wife and children alongside juxtaposing media that caught and catches the eyes of children — war footage, ads for toy weapons, and both older and contemporary cartoons and live-action shows filled with violence and comedy in humiliation and slapstick. It might be a touch on the offensive when it comes to other children’s programming — I’ll say I felt a little attacked over my love for visual effects, but introspectively, I understand where Rogers is coming from — but nevertheless, Neville’s (and Rogers’) message has gained all the more profound meaning today — why are we so hung up on aggression and overloading our senses? What happened to good old-fashioned wholesomeness?

Maybe that’s an ambitious question because the world is changing — it’s impossible to demand children to go back to playing outside and with non-electronic toys. But “Neighbor” forces audiences to confront this question head-on. America lost a one-of-a-kind treasure when “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” ended and Rogers passed, and “Neighbor” is dedicated to showing his legacy. “Neighbor” doesn’t choose to glamorize his life, nor does it disclose his darkest secrets or hidden facts about the show — instead, it relies on Rogers’ technique of simple goodness and authentic conversation to initiate closeness and intimacy with Rogers himself, complete with original animations of Rogers’ puppet Daniel Tiger.

Like many, I started crying partway through the film. There were so many emotional scenes, yet the ones that got me were always when Rogers spoke directly to the children. He treated each and every one with such kindness and respect, valuing children’s opinions as much as adults, and in turn as beloved by all — he was like a better, more effective Santa. Neville lays on the emotion as more and more are affected by Rogers’ true generosity and having children’s best interests in mind — and he believed in his own values, transforming him into that American legend. I had barely remembered watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and now I want to go back and watch it all.

Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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