It turns out Fred Rogers, the mainstay of low-key children’s television for nearly a half century, was something of a child psychologist, maybe even prescient in his understanding of the new medium of television, when in 1954 he started “The Children’s Corner,” the precursor to the iconic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” features all the standard documentary techniques: talking heads (his widow, his sons, his ethnically and gender-diverse colleagues, child psychologists), clips of the show, and ample excerpts from interviews with Rogers, who died in 2003 at age 74.
Rogers, headed for the seminary and eventually ordained (a son describes life with Dad as akin to living with Jesus), was deeper into child psychology than appears on the surface of his popular program. Introverted and overweight as a boy, Rogers used the TV series to address issues of self-doubt through the mangy puppet, Daniel Tiger (probably Rogers himself, according to his widow). In addition, he composed a song–not “You’re the Greatest,” “You’re Beautiful,” or other extreme praise one might hear today — but simply “I Like You Just the Way You Are.” Another example of Rogers’ efforts to address children’s fears was his (and Daniel Tiger’s) direct approach to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, the year “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired.
The film is mostly hagiographic. It could use a bit of tension from and about the man. Yet the depth of Rogers, especially compared to the low-key personality that flickers through the TV set, is enough to make this one of 2018’s best documentaries. Too bad the Academy overlooked it.