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Dear Mr. Watterson Deceptively Deeper Than a Mere Fan Letter

  • Shawn McEvoy Managing Editor, Crosswalk.com
  • 2013 11 Nov
  • COMMENTS
<i>Dear Mr. Watterson</i> Deceptively Deeper Than a Mere Fan Letter

Release Date: November 15, 2013 in select theaters and OnDemand
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Documentary
Run Time: 89 minutes
Director: Joel Allen Schroeder
Cast: Joel Allen Schroeder, Berkeley Breathed, Seth Green, Stephan Pastis, Bill Amend, Lee Salem, Jan Eliot

"I've never met anyone who doesn't like Calvin & Hobbes," says one of the interviewees in Joel Allen Schroeder's documentary Dear Mr. Watterson: An Exploration of Calvin & Hobbes. This sentiment is rare among comic strips, especially for comic strips that ran their last issue 18 years ago, and whose characters have never been licensed or merchandised.

Consider, for example, one of the questions posed by the film: what would be the harm if there existed today stuffed Hobbes dolls that children could own, dolls over which Bill Watterson could have had complete creative control to ensure they looked and felt just right? How would that be a bad thing? Children would love them, and the fact they exist (ala a plush Snoopy) would continue to create thousands of up-and-coming potential readers of Calvin & Hobbes! Win-win, no?

Well... no. Quite possibly no. One of Schroeder's interviewees makes a salient point here that while it took him a long time to agree with stances Watterson took such as not licensing these characters, he now understands it. That Hobbes plush, while harmless and helpful, suddenly by its very existence removes the mystique and innocence of the Hobbes character that Watterson intentionally intoned in his strip: namely, is Hobbes real, or is he a toy? If you have the toy sitting there in front of you, the answer is clear. Without it, the world of the strip can continue to exist in our collective imagination however we wish it to. And that, maybe more than anything, actually contributes to the making of more potential readers in a way a commercial product never could.

And it is this unbelievable, sacrificial, insightful brilliance (no, I don't think I'm overstating it) of Bill Watterson that, with the added hindsight of these past 18 years, makes Dear Mr. Watterson such a worthwhile watch for viewers of all ages.

Consider that the title of the documentary reads as a love letter or even a request for Watterson to please-please-please come back to us in our hour of societal need, but the direction the film takes doesn't quite go to either of these expected places. Neither are the varied and several interviewees all that important or memorable on their own (we have the syndicate rep who worked and butted heads with Watterson, the fellow cartoonists like Berkeley Breathed and Bill Amend, the legions of fans whose lives or career tracks were forever changed by a comic strip), but the things they say are the collective payoff. Where is the negativity? There's so little of it you may be tempted to cite Schroeder & Co. for too much self-satisfaction, ala Hobbes giving himself a tongue-bath. For what is a documentary without at least some cricitism of its subject? While we are reminded of the way Watterson could rub industry insiders the wrong way with his idealism and speech-making (one example is Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker, who found a 1989 talk Watterson gave disrespectful to career cartoonists like himself), what we have here is more of a proof-was-in-the-pudding retrospective, as in, 50 million Calvin & Hobbes fans - and more every day even after all this time - can't be wrong.

And yet, "wrong" is itself an interesting subject in Dear Mr. Watterson. For starters, Schroeder admits that while he can't remember a time where Calvin & Hobbes wasn't part of his life, he does suspect his well-meaning mother may have held back his introduction to the material. "I had a feeling," explains his mom, sheepishly, "that that little boy was a bad little boy..." It's clear that Mom no longer feels the same way today, but other interviewees definitely still have opinions on several of the topics that Watterson himself considered "wrong," such as: comics somehow being a lower form of art than, say, painting or writing; the commercialization of art; the loss of control; the loss of peace of mind.

This is Schroeder's first major directorial credit (he previously directed a few shorts with titles such as Donut Run and Prius Envy), and the production suffers a bit for it. In fact, without the extremely popular and too-compelling-to-not-watch subject matter to propel this production forward, the film would fail, as it's hard to see what Schroeder specifically brings to the story; indeed, there are times it feels as if he interjects himself too much. His introduction is cute enough, explaining that he and Calvin were both six years old in 1985 (the year the strip was born), and toe-headed, spiky-haired mischief makers who loved space and dinosaurs. But such similarities and a love for the work of Bill Watterson do not automatically equal qualifications for such an undertaking. The visit to his old bedroom, now bare of the cut-out Sunday strips he says once coated the corkboard wall behind his bed, is especially ineffective.

No matter. We watch because we love Calvin & Hobbes and because we slowly become lost in the amazingly unbelieveable mindset of Bill Watterson, who, without making an appearance, nonetheless seeps superbly into and out of this documentary. Schroeder's timing could not, it appears, have been better. To wit: much of the capital for this project was generated through Kickstarter, giving legs to the notion that the world is ready for a return to the optimism and innocence and imagination this young boy and his stuffed tiger brought to us (just look at all the recent books being written about Calvin & Hobbes (several of their authors are among Schroeder's interviewees) and the existence of such "What is Calvin doing now?" homages like Hobbes and Bacon).

We've all got a favorite, iconic individual Calvin & Hobbes strip inside our minds that we always remember, one that either spoke to us philosophically, or evoked an emotion artistically, or gave us a laugh or a cry innocently. I myself can remember a day in college walking past office doors of professors and seeing not a one without a cut-out Calvin & Hobbes strip upon his or her door. And this film does not ignore that aspect for we the fans. We revisit the first strip in 1985, the final strip in 1995, and the notion that everyone has a fave in between. These scenes are some of the most moving.

But the biggest and best reason to watch this documentary is to be left scratching your head in appreciation for such a person as Bill Watterson. Schroeder, as any true Watterson fan would, respects the man's desire for privacy, and so doesn't interview him. And yet, the picture we eventually paint through visits to rural Ohio (Watterson's stomping grounds) and the many interviews is no less than this: there exists a man who...

  • Has made millions of people happy, has made the world a better place
  • Is unquestionably a creative wizard of watercolor, pen-and-ink, and the written word
  • Walked away from his creation at the top of his game, leaving it to stand for itself
  • Has left probably hundreds of millions of dollars on the table
  • Protected the inherent innocence and imagination of his creation for future generations
  • Can hold his head up and take walks in the woods secure in his accomplishments, his having created, having not sold out, and having been proved right

And those are things at which to marvel in this day and age, to consider for ourselves, and which - for this Christian fan and reviewer - resonate deep within the soul. Dear, dear Mr. Watterson indeed.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol: None
  • Language/Profanity: A single instance of bulls--t. One interviewee censors herself; another shares a letter he received from Watterson in which the cartoonist also censored out a curse word himself with a series of asterisks, ampersands, etc.
  • Sexual content/Nudity: A fleeting glimpse of Calvin's backside in one comic panel; we see the infamous unlicensed bootleg image of Calvin "urinating" on a car logo
  • Violence/Crime: Almost nil. We of course see some frames of "violent" acts from the strip itself, such as Calvin and Hobbes attacking each other, or Moe the bully beating up Calvin, or a giant Calvin stampeding through a town square (which interestingly enough was Watterson's home town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio). One interviewee admits her "first and only crime" was shoplifting a Calvin & Hobbes collection from a store.
  • Spiritual Themes: No mention of religion or religious principles is made whatsoever. But, as mentioned in the review above, the spiritually-minded or principled viewer will be hard pressed not to consider issues such as greed, peace of mind, standing up for what one believes in, and the value of innocence in watching this documentary.

Publication date: November 15, 2013