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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Won't You Be My Neighbor is a poignant biographical documentary about Fred Rogers, the creator of public television's iconic Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Mixing footage from the show and interviews with Rogers' widow, children, colleagues, and friends, Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville traces Rogers' life's work and legacy to educate, encourage, and inspire very young children. Expect a few swear words -- including "bitch" (in a Saturday Night Live sketch spoofing the show), "ass," "d--k," and "bastard." There are also brief clips of footage from the Vietnam War, civil rights protests, assassinations, and the Challenger disaster, as well as discussions of tough themes (from divorce to grief to Rogers' post-9/11 public service message) and how the show handled them in a child-friendly way. Otherwise, this documentary is focused on the positive aspects of Rogers' personal and professional crusade to put children, not profit, first in children's programming. Compassion, integrity, and the healthy expression of emotion are all strong themes.
What's the story?
WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR is Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville's (20 Feet from Stardom) documentary about the life and work of children's programming/public TV pioneer Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Through extensive footage and interviews with Rogers' widow, Joanne; their two adult sons; and a host of colleagues and friends -- including Yo-Yo Ma (whose son is one of the documentary's producers) -- Neville digs into the legendary man who remains a symbol of friendship, kindness, and make-believe for generations of adults. The film documents how Rogers, who hailed from Pittsburgh's upper crust and was trained and ordained as a Presbyterian minister, dedicated his life to service, faith, and young children.
Is it any good?
This documentary is a touching, triumphant tribute to Fred Rogers, a remarkable man who reminded generations of young children that they mattered and that they were loved. There are no secret behind-the-scenes shockers here, no "gotcha" moments of unexpected behavior. Rogers was just as upright, compassionate, and loving off camera as he was on, although his family did have to share him with the world. The various interviewees reveal that Rogers, a devout Christian, was disciplined (he swam every single morning and weighed 143 lbs. his entire adult life) and single-minded in his pursuit of quality children's programming for young children. Rogers may have been gentle and mild-mannered, but he was also quite passionate about his work, the show, and the role it played in children's lives.
Neville's film is an emotional and nostalgic experience for adults who grew up watching Mister Rogers, but it also explores (and refutes) criticism of the idea that the show's core message -- "everyone is important" -- is somehow responsible for a generation of entitled, self-absorbed whiners. Rogers was a lifelong Republican, and he was also a supporter of government funding for public television. He was a mentor, friend, and champion of his African American closeted gay co-star François Scarborough Clemmons (though the film acknowledges that Rogers was, at least initially, reluctant for Clemmons' sexuality to become public knowledge). And Rogers was a big believer that even very young children can handle and understand a lot. There's no such thing as a perfect human being, but there's no denying Rogers came pretty close: He was an extraordinary man who always put children first.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the kind of role model that Fred Rogers was. How would you describe his relationship with -- and opinion of -- children? Is that typical? Why is educational programming for kids so important?
Rogers demonstrates many different character strengths both personally and through Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, including compassion, curiosity, and teamwork. How does he demonstrate communication, empathy, and gratitude? What about courage and perseverance? How does he show his humility and integrity? Why are these character strengths all so important?
Talk about the importance of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and how it impacts children. How does Rogers' legacy live on? What do you think of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, which is also produced by the Fred Rogers Company?
What did Rogers' friend mean when he said that Rogers "showed another way of being a man"? Why do you think it's important for kids (and adults!) to see various representations of gender?
How would you describe Rogers' approach to discussing difficult topics with kids? Do you agree? Why or why not?
- In theaters: June 8, 2018
- Cast: Fred Rogers
- Director: Morgan Neville
- Studio: Focus Features
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: Great Boy Role Models, Music and Sing-Along
- Character Strengths: Compassion, Integrity
- Run time: 94 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some thematic elements and language
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Seal
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