Dear Mr. Watterson
Directed by Joel Allen Schroeder
Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes was revolutionary; this unabashedly adulatory documentary is not. It's a generic tribute, an instance of mediocrity celebrating genius. Director Schroeder starts by saying he's not interested in the man so much as his creation (so, why the title? Is it like a "Thinking of You" card signed by everyone in the office?), but there's little insight here to justify such an approach: a lengthy parade of fans and comics contemporaries—comprising a diverse spectrum: war-zone Israelis, 300-pound black teenagers, and Seth Green—testifying to the comic strip's value and making broad pronouncements as to its appeal, engaging in not a small bit of armchair psychoanalysis as the doc moves through the different aspects of the artist, his strip, and how he coped with fame.
Most of the insights are bland. (On the topic of whether comics are art: "Comics are self-expression," one cartoonist says faux-profoundly. "Self-expression is art." I laughed out loud.) Toward the end it gets smarter, engaging in a nuanced, truly thoughtful debate about Watterson's staunch anti-licensing stance; apparently, fans and colleagues (especially Bloom County's Berkeley Breathed and Pearls Before Swine's Stephan Pastis) have spent a lot of time confronting the idea that there should be no lunchboxes, no plush dolls, no branded toothpastes. But it's too little, too late.
What's missing, of course, is Watterson himself, who's something of a Salinger-esque recluse that could surely add more wisdom to these discussions than the whole lot of these talking heads put together. But Watterson knows better, always did—he knew that the art itself would always speak louder and better than he could, let alone some Saturday morning series or documentary exploration. Perhaps that's Schroeder's final tribute to the art he so clearly loves and the artist he so dearly admires: you don't finish his documentary wanting to tell your friends about it—you want to find your old Calvin and Hobbes collections and read them by flashlight until you fall asleep.
Opens November 15