The World of Film: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Paddington 2

Years after his passing, it’s still remarkable that Fred Rogers ever succeeded at making enjoyable, entertaining television. Even back in the late 1960s, his aggressively low-key style of presentation was at odds with the majority of television shows. In 2018, of course, watching clips of the public-television program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is like watching a dispatch from another world. The spirit of the show lives on today — PBS still has repeats of the old show available, and the animated series Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is a spin-off of the original — but has come roaring back to full life thanks to the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Morgan Neville’s documentary was tailor-made for success this summer. The documentary isn’t flashy, nor is it truly groundbreaking. If you’ve seen a handful of documentaries in your life, then you’ll recognize the structure and style of this one without feeling like you’ve seen a breakthrough in the format. (I would also say that, as much as Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is charming, it’s not the best documentary of the year; that would be the heartbreaking Minding the Gap.) What makes Won’t You Be My Neighbor? so impressive is not the way Neville presents his evidence of Fred Rogers as a purely good person, as much as the evidence itself.

Won't You Be My Neighbor trailer

The documentary arguably only scratches the surface of Rogers’ life and career — one of its highest points is archival footage of him speaking in front of Congress in the late 1960s, making a persuasive argument that public television should continue to get (arguably meager) government funding. This isn’t the only time in the film that Rogers is able to prove the necessity of public television, or at least of his own show, but it’s an unexpectedly early climax. When the gruff politician leading the hearings almost blithely says “Looks like you’ve got your funding” after Rogers’ testimony concludes, the resulting sense of emotional catharsis is hard to avoid.

This, no doubt, is what made the film such a hit over the summer. Moments like these, or the clip of Rogers, on his show, interacting with a disabled boy whose parents had written him a letter thanking him for his program, are the most emotional parts of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, as well as the images that turned this into what critics would dub “the movie we need right now”. (This has been a theme of some film criticism this year. There were a lot of movies we needed right now in 2018!) But what those kinds of comments highlight is the inherent decency on display in films like this. Fred Rogers was not the most charismatic presenter. He was a religious man, and a man of his era. (One of the side avenues the film skates past is how Francois Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the program, was told by Rogers to avoid indicating his homosexuality on the show or in real life, lest any scandal come down on the show. Rogers was more racially progressive, but the surface-level exploration of this side of his personality never reconciles the problem.)

I can’t say Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a truly great film. Neville has made a loving, hagiographic portrait of a man who was embraced by many people, at a time when his decency seems almost alien. There’s a lot to like about this movie, but what stands out most of all is less anything done by the documentarian. It’s all just a wonderful glimpse back into the kindness and caring displayed by someone who most children grew up with through TV. People learned a lot through Mr. Rogers when they were growing up, and you wish kids had someone who could teach them similar lessons today.   

January is not a good time for new movies. Everyone — at least film critics — knows this. January is when markets outside of New York and Los Angeles get various independent films and/or awards-bait-y movies from the end of the previous year. January is when schlocky horror films, forgettable dramas, and saccharine family fare open. Basically, January is a studio dumping ground for new films. You go into a January release at your own risk with low expectations.

Or, you’re supposed to. The first film I saw in theaters in 2018 was one I was mildly hopeful for, and by the end, I was richly rewarded. It remains my favorite film of the year, and it’s a most unlikely title: Paddington 2.

Yes, really. I didn’t make an ironic choice for my favorite film of the year. As a (moderately) self-respecting film critic, I’ve seen many of the acclaimed films of 2018. Vice? Seen it. (And give me a break.) Green Book? Seen it. (And seriously, give me a break.) The Favourite? A Star is Born? First Man? Seen ‘em all, and they’re all quite good. The same goes for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Widows, Eighth Grade, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and more. And Paddington 2 is still my favorite.

As much as the other pieces of culture mentioned here, Paddington 2 is about the power of being a kind, decent person to those around you. If that message was the overriding element of the film, though, I’m not sure it would have risen above being just a saccharine family film. Plenty of films and TV shows try to tell kids how to do the right thing, but mostly in a condescending fashion, with little attempt to explore the impact of decency, and even less interest in actual cinematic technique. This is what makes Paddington 2 stand out. The message is wonderful, and its effect is so profound that the final shot of the film is one of the year’s great emotional gut-punches. But this movie’s aesthetic, its design, and its commitment to being exceptionally funny and inventive is what makes it truly special.

Young Paddington Bear (voiced marvelously by Ben Whishaw) is living comfortably with the Brown family in Windsor Gardens, with his only point of stress being what he’ll buy his Aunt Lucy for her 100th birthday. He alights upon an extravagantly designed pop-up book of London, but has to work odd jobs to raise the money to buy the gift. The night before he can do so, Paddington spots a mysterious thief stealing the pop-up book, but when the thief gets away, he’s framed for the crime. Paddington then lands in prison, making tough friends like Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), while the Browns try to clear his name and Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) begins to suspect their new neighbor, downtrodden actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant).

The joys of Paddington 2 are not confined to its message. Here is a film with remarkably deft direction from Paul King in every scene. When Paddington first opens up the pop-up book, he’s transported inside, imagining walking around London with Aunt Lucy on her first visit to the metropolis. As each page turns, he and his aunt, whom he adores, fall more in love with the city’s sights and sounds; watching the fanciful animation, you can see why. When Paddington is able to save his skin in prison from the initially fearsome Knuckles, the two then turn the prison kitchen into the equivalent of a high-end bakery, and the camera sails through the cafeteria to show the colorful ways in which the prison is changing, akin to a family-friendly version of the bakery in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. (I love this film, but let’s not pretend it’s an accurate depiction of prison life.) When Paddington tries to make a living to purchase the pop-up book, he works at a barber’s and has a disastrous run-in with a local judge (Tom Conti), in a bit of silent comedy that recalls Buster Keaton; so too does the climax on a pair of speeding trains in the English countryside.

This is, in effect, part of why Paddington 2 is so wonderful. It’s not just that the film is empathetic to most, though not all, of its characters. (The only character who doesn’t get off light is one of the Browns’ neighbors, played by Peter Capaldi. He’s stridently anti-immigrant, and treated with appropriate amounts of disdain and mockery, much as King and co-writer Simon Farnaby no doubt feel about Brexit-style racism in Britain.) It’s that the film is committed to being extremely intelligent, and is directed by someone who cares about the look and feel of such a film. Where else are you going to find a movie with a mid-credits scene that features a prison full of men singing and dancing to a Stephen Sondheim song? (I don’t have enough space to tell you exactly how delightful Hugh Grant is in this film, but let it be said now that it’ll be a shame when he doesn’t get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.)

Paddington 2 set an important foundation for some of the most remarkable pieces of culture this year. It is an unabashed ode to the necessity of being a good person, and the notion that being good will pay off in the most unexpected ways. Each year, there is incredible culture to experience; anyone who tells you it’s a bad year for movies or TV is just lying. (Or they need to watch more of each.) And some of this year’s best films and TV shows have little to do with goodness, nor do they feature people being or striving to be good. But a handful of them were all centered, in some fashion, on the power of being good to your fellow person. It’s a reminder we all need now.

Pages: Previous page 1 2

Cool Posts From Around the Web: