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Review: Morgan Neville offers a gentle look back on the legacy of Mister Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbour?

Fred Rogers visits with disabled children in Won’t You Be My Neighbour?

Jim Judkis/Focus Features

  • Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
  • Directed by Morgan Neville
  • Starring Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Yo-Yo Ma
  • Classification: PG

rating

Would you be his, could you be his – wouldn’t you be his neighbour? In a late-sixties era full of weirdos and revolutionary heroes, none came along more radical than Fred Rogers, a puppeteer who as Mister Rogers preached compassion and offered a daily invitation to a make-believe kingdom for TV-watching, trolley-loving tykes who were reminded they were “special” just for being themselves. Pretty nuts, right? For the making of his gentle film Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the accomplished documentarian Morgan Neville was given the keys to the kingdom, meaning rare access to Rogers’s family and former crew members and show performers who have traditionally been protective of the late Rogers’s legacy. The result is a love letter to a cardigan-wearing humanist often mocked – we see comedy bits from SCTV, Saturday Night Live and Johnny Carson – and an examination of a man who realized children raised on television were being bombarded daily with unpleasant images. Film critic Roger Ebert described movies as “empathy machines,” in that they allowed people to understand the lives and stories of others. Empathy was a big part of what Fred Rogers taught. In this film and with others, Neville, who grew up in the entertainer’s neighbourhood, has demonstrated himself to be an A-plus student. Brad Wheeler

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