Sitting atop my bookshelf, next to my 22" Iron Giant, are two imposing slipcases, one holding the two-volume collection of The Far Side, while the other is home to three thick, brownish-red hardcover books that hold the entire run of Calvin and Hobbes. One day, I will allow my now-seven-year-old daughter to leaf through these gorgeous books and enjoy Bill Watterson's beautifully reproduced work, and hope she appreciates it the way I did when I was younger and still do today. In the meanwhile, she'll have to make due with trade paperbacks, the way I did when I was a kid (thus preventing me from suffering an aneurysm at the sound of paper tearing.)
What does this have to do with Joel Allen Schroeder's Kickstarter-funded documentary Dear. Mr. Watterson? Well, besides the set appearing in the background of many of the interviews that make up this film, it is probably the biggest piece of non-bootleg Calvin and Hobbes merchandise available (more on this later), and is a link to the past for the comic strip's fans, the kind of permanent momento Watterson's fans can enjoy and pass on to the next generation. In some ways, this film is a similar bridge, as the faithful can enjoy remembering the strip through the many interviews with fans, experts and cartoonists, while those new to the world of Calvin and Hobbes can gain an appreciation for what is likely the last great comic strip, and a true work of art with universal appeal.
The bulk of the film is made up of interviews with Watterson's contemporaries like Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County), Bill Amand (FoxTrot), Jan Eliot (Stone Soup) and Wiley Miller (Non Sequitur), artists he influenced, including Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine) and Hilary Price (Rhymes with Orange), and many cartooning experts and fans (including Seth Green) all of whom combine to do a fine job of explaining what made (and makes) Calvin and Hobbes such a special part of pop culture and so much more than just another comic strip.
Tying all the testimonials together is a wealth of Calvin and Hobbes art, which is impressively animated to approximate the feel of it being drawn on-screen, lending additional energy to the film's well-organized presentation, which starts by establishing a baseline of knowledge about Watterson's creations, in part through a trip to his hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where his earliest work is explored, while experts discuss the influence of classic strips like Pogo. Peanuts and Krazy Kat. Schroeder hits upon a number of topics in relation to the strip, including all the big ones, like the artist's reclusive nature, which has given him a near-Salinger-like mythology, and his distaste for merchandising, which has kept our shelves free of little toy tigers, as well as the bootleg market it has encouraged (featured in a montage of art and commerce.) This section is especially interesting, presenting excellent insight from Breathed, Patsis, Peanuts creator Charles Schultz' widow Jean and Watterson's editor at the cartoon syndicate.
Before wrapping up with a rather moving look at the series' last entry and Calvin's immortal sign-off, Schroeder zooms out a bit, using Calvin and Hobbes elevated place in comic-strip history to explore some contemporary issues in the industry, such as the debate of "high art" versus "low art," the state of the comics page today and the effect of the internet on comic strips. There's something of an academic feel to how the film is structured, presenting thesis statements and then offering supporting and oppositional evidence, but the people making these arguments are so passionate about the subject matter, and naturally Calvin and Hobbes, that the emotion makes for an engaging documentary.
Though Watterson recently gave his first interview in forever, to Mental Floss, that doesn't affect the value of this film, as the director smartly didn't make a hunt for the elusive creator of our favorite boy and his tiger the focus of the movie. However he made his own relationship with the comics a key element, which can give the film a sense of melodrama, if not pretentiousness, especially when he makes an unnecessary visit to his childhood home in Wisconsin or as the film makes its way to its ending, Being a star in their own documentaries may have been important for Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, but Schroeder probably could have gotten across the same ideas he shares via his scenes in the movie through the thoughts of his copious interviewees, and shaved some time off the film's 90-minute length. He may have been influenced by Watterson in terms of visuals and heart, but he missed class on the day Bill lectured on brevity.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.