Who needs J.D. Salinger as a cinematic subject when there’s Bill Watterson?
The famed cartoonist has led a reclusive life in small-town Ohio since he retired his comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, about a precocious 6-year-old boy and his tiger companion, after a hugely successful 10-year run. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he steadfastly refused to license his creations for commercial purposes, in the process walking away from an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars.
As its affectionate title would suggest, Joel Allen Schroeder’s documentary Dear Mr. Watterson is no attempt at an exposé a la the recent Salinger. The filmmaker made no attempt to contact the cartoonist, and imparts virtually no information about him. Rather, the film is a deeply personal examination of the strip’s apparently vast popularity and cultural impact, especially the one it had on Schroeder himself, who at one point shows us his childhood bedroom, the walls of which, he says, used to be generously festooned with Calvin & Hobbes strips.
We thus hear from an endless series of talking heads, including cartoon historians and the curator of the wonderfully named “Toonseum”; actor Seth Green, who paid tribute to the strip in his claymation series Robot Chicken; and numerous cartoonists, most notably Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed, who wittily describes his difference of opinion with Watterson, with whom he frequently corresponded, concerning their different philosophies about licensing their works.
The film’s insularity makes it of only marginal interest to non-Calvin & Hobbes fans, with the gushing, often platitudinous testimonials — one reader describes the strip as a “deep philosophical experience,” while another proudly shows off his numerous Calvin & Hobbes tattoos — becoming painfully redundant. For every witty comment, such as one colleague saying of the little-seen Watterson that “he’s the Sasquatch of cartoonists” — we’re forced to endure endless paeans to the strip’s deep wisdom and intellectually sophisticated musings. Particular attention is paid to the inspirational message of its farewell offering, which ended with the optimistic exclamation, “Let’s go exploring!”
But for all its fandom and self-indulgence, Dear Mr. Watterson does offer some insightful musings about the decline of comic strips in general, with their content ever shrinking due to the diminished state of the newspaper industry. The art form has become far more diffuse, and it’s noted that it’s highly unlikely that there’ll ever be another strip that will achieve a similar cultural impact. In the meantime Calvin & Hobbes fans will have to console themselves with rereading the original strips, the collected book versions of which have sold some 45 million copies.
Director/editor: Joel Allen Schroeder
Producers: Christopher Browne, Matt McUsic, Joel Allen Schroeder
Director of photography: Andrew Waruszewski
Composer: We Were Pirates (Mike Boggs)
Not rated, 90 minutes