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October 18th, 2018

Now Playing at the Savoy Theater

Won’t You Be My Neighbor: ****

Because I write this column, I’ve watched plenty of movies over the years that I didn’t really want to see. I even break down and watch a family movie from time to time even though they are terrible.

I didn’t even enjoy the kiddie movies that everyone else liked – like “Toy Story” and “The Incredibles” and “Coraline.”

The entertainment that Hollywood makes for children is garbage. The only motivation is profit. The jokes are puns, putdowns, and potty humor. The action is always frantic, as if they are intentionally trying to erode your child’s attention span. When there is any emotion, it is nostalgic or manipulative.

That’s why Mr. Rogers is such a revered figure in our society.

He made wholesome, intelligent entertainment. He made shows for children – not for profit. His main goal was to help kids cope with the emotional challenges of childhood, not to help mothers enjoy twenty minutes of freedom to pour more Chardonnay.

Above all, Mr. Rogers wanted his young audience members to feel loved and capable of loving, rather than feeling like consumers in training.

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was the pace. Fred Rogers wanted to be the voice of calm comfort in a chaotic world. He took time every day to feed his fish. There’s a scene where he takes joy in watching a turtle slowly run across his carpet. There is even a clip of Mr. Rogers sitting through an egg timer to teach kids what a minute of silence feels like.

Documentarian Morgan Neville isn’t trying to be as revolutionary as Fred Rogers. He’s mostly just trying to remind everyone why we all loved Mr. Rogers. And he succeeds mightily.

I want to thank my father for never crying in front of me. If not for his good influence, I surely would have sobbed in a crowded theater multiple times during “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It’s a seriously emotional film.

The one blemish on this otherwise classic documentary is Morgan Neville’s foolish attempt to paint Fred Rogers (a registered Republican who died in 2003) as a committed member of the #Resistance.

Neville’s evidence is a 1968 episode where the vainglorious puppet King Friday XIII builds a wall around his castle. “Gotcha!” Neville seems to say. “Mr. Rogers hates Trump!”

Not exactly. Mr. Rogers wasn’t making a literal anti-Wall statement. King Friday represented the old guard in ’68 who were resistant to change, like racial integration. It can be argued that Mr. Rogers’s Wall metaphor is an attack on fanatical anti-Trump Establishment leaders who are fighting change in Washington at all cost.

For the record, I am not making that argument. Both arguments are equally biased and stupid. My point is that any attempt to use the memory of Mr. Rogers to attack your political opponents is nauseating and ridiculous.

There is no way that Mr. Rogers can save us from our current political discord.

But he can remind us that there are saints among us. And that children’s entertainment can be more than insipid corporate cartoons.

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