Director: Joel Allen Schroeder; Running time: 89 minutes; Certification: U
Joel Allen Schroeder’s first feature-length documentary is a wonderfully reverential and admiring look at Calvin & Hobbes, the comic strip that to this day still reels in young new readers and captivates older ones alike. Even those of us who aren’t comic aficionados have read and loved every panel of Bill Watterson’s marvelously witty, philosophical and subversive strip that broke boundaries with its social and political commentary beautifully interwoven with simple hilarious punchlines, sweet sentiments and exquisite drawings – and if someone hasn’t read it, you can bet they’ve heard of it.
There’s clearly a strong love for the strip pulsating behind the scenes of Dear Mr. Watterson. Schroeder’s gone to a lot of trouble to tell the story of his beloved comic that played companion to him throughout his childhood – as it did with many of us – as he brings together comic artists, writers and entertainers alike to comment on everything from why this thing is so popular and what makes it stand out so clearly from everything else to why there has never been any Calvin & Hobbes merchandise and the reason for Bill Watterson’s reservation about appearing in the public eye. It’s genuinely interesting and revealing stuff with an emotionally nostalgic eye; a film that brings us right back to our childhoods, or for those older viewers, when they first saw it appear in the Sunday newspaper, and keeps Calvin and Hobbes front and fore-center at all times.
Yet sadly, for what is essentially a celebratory documentary, there’s a curious lack of joy. Despite the words expressing such love and enthusiasm for the strip, the narration is often dull and monotone, as if being reluctantly read from a script rather than spoken with real heart or meaning, and often, while Schroeder has the right people saying the right things, the general tone of the film seems to miss the spirit of the comic. Rather than entertaining and nuanced it’s more straight to the point and informative, which is fine in some capacity but begins to feel waning. In theory, watching Dear Mr. Watterson should be as enjoyable as reading Calvin & Hobbes, but often that that’s far from the case.
The film didn’t get a cinematic release, or indeed any form of release outside of the US other than on demand streaming, but in honesty it’s easy to see why. While it would have been delightful to see Calvin and Hobbes make a big screen debut, this particular documentary really doesn’t lend itself to such a venue. There’s definite amateur vibe to the whole thing – not to be discrediting to Schroeder because he has put a lot of work and passion and love into it – but it’s easy to see that he isn’t, say, a Paul Greengrass (whose signature corporeal style comes from roots in documentary). The creativity in the editing and flare in the presentation just isn’t there, as much as it wants to be. Even with information and love there, it can’t help but often feel a bit flat.
Of course, it feels a little unfair and sniffy to pick such holes. Schroeder deserves a lot of credit for creating such a film, for bringing Calvin & Hobbes back into the public eye, albeit in a small capacity. It’s a beloved staple of so many people’s lives; something we can go back to time and time again for a quick laugh, for some comfort and joy. Schroeder feels the same way and he’s gone to work collating our shared thoughts and feelings to remind us to pick the book up again. Watching Dear Mr. Watterson isn’t always like riding in Calvin’s red cart, but it will remind you all over again why you love Calvin & Hobbes so much.