A new daily comic strip appeared in papers across the country on November 18, 1985, and while it ended just over ten years later it remains in the hearts, minds, and memories of fans worldwide. Bill Watterson’s “Calvin & Hobbes” introduced readers to the world of six year old Calvin and his best friend/stuffed tiger Hobbes, and it never looked back. The imaginative and precocious boy captures Hobbes in a tiger trap baited with a tuna fish sandwich, obviously, and for the next decade the world shared in the duo’s playful adventures and heartfelt interactions. There hasn’t been a new installment in almost twenty years, but many fans continue to extol the virtues of what some consider to be the greatest comic strip ever.
Joel Allen Schroeder is one of those fans, and while he beats himself up for having not discovered the strip until 1991, he recognizes it as a beloved companion from his youth that still doles out wonder, laughs, and life lessons even today. His documentary, Dear Mr. Watterson: An Exploration of Calvin & Hobbes, is clearly the work of someone who loves both the strip and Watterson, but while it’s filled with affection and snippets of insight the film ultimately feels a bit slight.
“Calvin’s the kid you want to be. Even if you’re a 300 pound black kid, you still want to be Calvin.”
When Watterson retired the strip at the end of 1995 he made a point of staying out of the limelight presumably believing that his work had said all he needed to say to the world. The nerve! Some have mistaken his disinterest in interviews or retrospectives to mean that he’s become a recluse or hermit, but neither is the case as he’s simply living his life. Still, Schroeder’s doc could have easily gone the route of the recent (and hilariously sensational) Salinger in its effort to “capture” the elusive artist on film as if he was the last Tasmanian tiger in existence. “He’s the Sasquatch of cartoonists,” says one fan.
Schroeder makes it clear that he’s not interested in tracking the man down and instead describes his focus as an exploration of what made the strip so special and powerful for so many readers. He narrates, takes viewers on a trip to Watterson’s home town, and interviews dozens of fans, colleagues, and business associates. It’s no surprise to discover that the people who make up those last two groups without fail also fall under the first.
And that in a nutshell is the essence of the film. Everyone loves “Calvin & Hobbes.” Everyone loves Watterson. That’s it, goodnight, be sure to have your parking validated on the way out the door.
Not that anyone is expecting scandals or revelations about the man, but the doc doesn’t even touch on rumors that Watterson once felt up Cathy Guisewite. Granted, that’s not a real rumor, but the point remains that there’s no drama, conflict, or issue here. While there’s no shortage of love for Watterson it wears thin at times as Schroeder moves from talking head to talking head with little variance between them. He visits repositories to examine some of Watterson’s original drawings and strips, but his delight translates to very little for the rest of us who are simply watching a grown man handle a piece of paper while wearing a big grin on his face.
The one area where the doc gets into something other than pure praise and affection for its subject is on the topic of commercialism and the untapped merchandising potential of the strip and its two lead characters. Watterson refused even a single piece of merchandise and by some estimates left hundreds of millions of dollars behind, and while his publisher claims they had 50% of the say in the matter he also states their various debates taught him a new perspective on the business. Berkeley Breathed handled the immense success of his own strip (“Bloom County”) differently and shares a letter from Watterson that hints at the pair’s opposing views by way of a drawing of Breathed taking cash from big business and pouring it into his speed boat. Of course, even here the take-away is that Watterson is a man of principle.
Dear Mr. Watterson: An Exploration of Calvin & Hobbes is more of a love letter than a documentary, and while that has some merits it’s not clear that it necessitated a feature-length documentary. That said, if you’re already a fan of the strip then you’ll find other like-minded people here along with ninety minutes of reminders why it’s one of the best cartoon strips ever created. The rest of you are on your own.
The Upside: Affectionate and personable look at the effect of one man’s work on others
The Downside: Doesn’t say much of anything beyond that
On the Side: Dear Mr. Watterson: An Exploration of Calvin & Hobbes was funded via Kickstarter.