“I’m not interested in the man himself,” says filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder at the start of “Dear Mr. Watterson,” a tender and sincere ode the legacy of the reclusive creator of iconic comic strip “Calvin & Hobbes,” who hung up his hat in 1995. Instead, Schroeder endeavors to find the man in his work. Yet over the course of this genial homage to the childhood exploits of a boy and his tiger, Watterson’s intentions loom large, partly because they’re opposition to the strip’s lasting popularity. If all roads lead to Watterson, they also cogently illustrate why he blocked them off.
Though he retired to a small town in Ohio and has remain out of the public eye for 18 years, Watterson’s voluminous output speaks volumes. As Schroeder points out in his voiceover, book-length collections of the strip have sold 45 million copies domestically, which leaves plenty of superfans for the movie’s director to sift through: To some readers, Calvin and Hobbes have become beacons for alienated youth, while others regard them with religious fervor. Schroeder speaks to one man bearing “Calvin & Hobbes” strips tattooed across his arm, includes a punk band cover of “The Yukon Song,” which Watterson penned for the strip collection “Yukon Ho!,” and delves into the amusingly coarse phenomenon of bootleg Calvin bumper stickers that find him engaged in lewd behavior. Dense with details, Schroeder’s collage of “Calvin & Hobbes” love makes it clear that the strip’s popularity has far outlasted Watterson’s involvement with it, and that’s enough to make it clear why he turned away from the fame.
Due to the timing of its release, it’s hard not to view “Dear Mr. Watterson” in contrast to a more prominent documentary about a famous recluse released not too long ago. In Shane Salerno’s far messier, eagerly salacious “Salinger,” the author of “Catcher in the Rye” becomes the subject of scrutiny precisely because of his lifelong allusiveness. Even as the mystery surrounding Salinger is something of a misnomer that largely resulted from a self-perpetuated mythology, Salerno argues that the man possessed as much neurotic anger as his fictional creations. In that same vein — although with much warmer intentions — Schroeder finds the essence of Watterson in the solitary nature of Calvin’s world.
As he wanders through the wilderness of the sleepy woods beside his suburban home and wondered aloud to a stuffed toy about the complexities of the universe, Calvin became a mouthpiece for Watterson’s freewheeling thoughts about the world, offering more proof for the creator’s enigmatic ways than any of the scant interviews he gave post-retirement. Despite his juvenile antics, Calvin regularly spouted a slew of heavy philosophical reflections. One particularly noteworthy motif involved his frustrations with the boundaries between fine art and popular entertainment, which reflected Watterson’s mounting discontent with the strip’s mounting commercial success.
The volume of talking heads in “Dear Mr. Watterson” can be overwhelming at times, to the point where the documentary practically functions like a supplementary feature to “Looking For Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip,” the recent book by Nevin Martell, who briefly appears among the many interviews. But it’s no less than Seth Green, whose “Robot Chicken” once paid homage to “Calvin & Hobbes,” who offers a keen analysis of the strip’s appeal by describing it as “both subversive and pure.”
Through the voices of experts and fans, the complex nature of that duality starts to emerge. As a curator from the Ohio museum that houses Watterson originals explains, the artist’s output came from a radical place. “The Cheapening of Comics,” a 1989 missive against the corporatization of comic strips that Watterson delivered at the Festival of Cartoon Art, illustrates his concern with the impact of commercial influence on the ability for strips to maintain their allure.
That mentality led him to refuse any licensing of his products — a decision contrasted with the likes of “Peanuts” and “Garfield,” the latter of whom has become “something of a pest” due to his ubiquity, as one Watterson devotee puts it. While Watterson’s editors from Universal U-click claim to have valiantly shielded the strip from lucrative adaptation offers from Steven Spielberg and Disney, it’s ultimately Watterson’s own militant approach to protecting his creations that enabled him to conclude the strip with its integrity in place.
It’s unfortunate that Schroeder decided to include himself on camera in so much of the movie; as is often the case with documentaries in which the filmmaker doesn’t have a natural reason to become part of the story, he’s largely a distraction from the real star: Watterson, both as an idea and an artist, beloved by many and yet under-appreciated all the same. The pace wanders in parts, but most of its ideas flow wonderfully, particularly for anyone keen to the intellectual ramifications of cartoon storytelling; as Watterson describes in an opening quotation, the comic strip “rivals the expressive possibilities of any art form.”
That conviction makes its current state into something of a tragedy: Schroeder smartly delves into the way shrinking page sizes and domineering advertisements have turned the print medium into an inhospitable place for visual narratives, while the fractured nature of online readership makes the internet an underwhelming alternative. Given these factors and other challenges, the success of “Calvin & Hobbes” takes on larger ramifications. “Outland” cartoonist Berkeley Breathed makes the grand claim that Watterson’s strip constituted the last great creation of the comics pages. If that observation pushes “Dear Mr. Watterson” into crestfallen territory, Schroeder tracks the end of innocence in much the same way that the strip captured it each time out. Unlike “Salinger,” he hardly makes a spectacle out of Watterson’s secluded tendencies. The pileup of interview subjects speak eloquently on his behalf.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? “Dear Mr. Watterson” opens in limited release and VOD on Friday. It should perform well in the latter market due to the lasting appeal of the strip, but its theatrical prospects are severely limited.