Even though just the trailer had me in tears, Morgan Neville’s Mister Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) is, aside from being a major nostalgia trip, somewhat aimless. We don’t get a deep dive into the man, who by all accounts is not hiding any skeletons in his closet; nor do we find much exploration of the impact of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1962-2001) on the nation or the culture beyond the mere existence of groundbreaking episodes. The only argument that I could discern has to do with tracing various aspects of the show back to the man.
Building on its first relevant insight that Daniel Striped Tiger (voiced by Rogers) is an externalization of Rogers’s childhood curiosity, the film animates Daniel in a number of sequences that depict him, and by extension Rogers, facing various growing pains and issues. From there, the film links each of the main characters of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, especially those voiced by Rogers, to different sides of Rogers’s personality, from the timid Henrietta Pussycat (Rogers), voicing his insecurities, to King Friday XIII (still Rogers), representing his adult need to control and order. These points could’ve been extended into fascinating territory had the film taken a step back to look at the interrelations of the puppets, but instead it takes them sequentially, constructing a narrative impetus out of the sequence. Given such an abstract, aesthetic investigation, the film’s emotionally powerful moments almost always arise from archival footage of the show—no one can top Mister Rogers, not even the director of 20 Feet from Stardom (2013).
The last part of the film asks an extremely topical and uncomfortable question: What contribution would Mister Rogers be able to make in our current media landscape? After all, he himself was vilified by Fox News near the end of his run for purportedly spreading a message of entitlement (rather than just self-love; the two are very different). Perhaps he would’ve drawn on his own provenance as being born into a rich family, something that the film only mentions in passing yet is probably its most surprising fact. He took his wealth and male White privilege and used it to tackle discrimination, marginalization, family and national trauma, and so much more. Even when you go meta, Mister Rogers still leads by shining example.