It comes as no surprise that Fred Rogers—known to almost everyone as Mister Rogers—would get the biodoc treatment. A Presbyterian minister who was fascinated by television’s potential, he worked on different programs until creating Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968. The show was a children’s television staple for over three decades, partly because of Rogers’ philosophy and approach: deliberate pacing, clear lineations between reality and fiction, the ability to deal with deep, complex ideas, and an emphasis on self-worth, just to name a few of the qualities that made Rogers stand out. The most impressive and radical part about him was how he acknowledged children’s emotions as real, complicated, and worth listening to, never pandering and always trying to give kids the tools to deal with universal aspects of childhood that were rarely acknowledged.
It’s a shame, then, that the person tasked with documenting Rogers’ own life story is Morgan Neville, the Oscar-winning director of Twenty Feet From Stardom. Unlike Rogers, Neville panders to audiences, peddling in mediocrity and documentary tropes simply because they work on the middlebrow audience he caters to. Rather than find ways to explore Rogers’ issues with depression, insecurity, and isolation growing up as a child, he utilizes animated sequences that show a young Rogers played by his puppet Daniel Tiger (some of his friends and relatives believe the puppet represents Rogers’ vulnerable and “real” self). Tactics like this are familiar, lazy, and simplistic, with Neville’s most offensive act involving his withholding the fate of an ill child who went on Mister Rogers’’ Neighborhood before undergoing major surgery. This is the kind of ill-intentioned manipulation Rogers couldn’t stand, but it’s Neville’s bread and butter.
At least Neville’s documentary isn’t too egregious, as his usual trademarks take a backseat to Rogers himself. Neville doesn’t shy away from his subject’s traditionalism, and he puts an emphasis on Rogers’ own ordinariness that prevents the film from glorifying things too much. But it’s worth remembering Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a show that railed against the lowbrow, familiar standards of childrens’ entertainment at the time, pulling off something unique and intellectual that went a long way to helping kids develop emotionally. To see Rogers’ story expressed through the usual tricks of the documentary format’s trade—especially with a tone that feels more serviceable than sincere—is further proof of how rare a presence like Rogers was in the entertainment industry.