Love letters are just that, documents of one’s affection for a specific person or subject. We film critics love to dole out said tag since it indicates a level of dedication on the part of those behind the scenes, as well as the desire by the maker to have his or her audience clearly understand and perhaps even participate in their particular affinity. In the case of ‘Dear Mr. Watterson,’ the subject is the celebrated newspaper comic strip, ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ and its reclusive, incredibly private practioner Bill Watterson. From 1985 to 1995, the adventures of a six year old boy and his stuffed tiger (who magically “comes to life” in our tiny hero’s imagination) was a true pen and ink phenomenon. Adults loved it for its loopy pseudo-philosophical musings will kids enjoyed the anarchic, grade school style mischievousness. Together, they made Watterson a legend among comic aficionados, which in turn, made the incredibly private person that much more secretive.
For self-described superfan Joel Allen Schroeder, the artist’s decision to remove himself and his creation from the limelight, to never merchandise the characters for commercial gain (no, those truck decals showing Calvin pissing on random things are not officially licensed – duh!) and reject all offers for film and TV adaptation smacks of J. D. Salinger and other noted outsiders. But instead of going on the investigative path, hoping to score an interview with the man who made all this possible, Schroeder is merely content to sit back and celebrate. What audiences will think of this occasionally trite testimonial will be interesting to see. Many will simply enjoy being in the presence of a property that provided a decade (or more) of joy and genuine cleverness. Others will want more than talking heads and a director reading comic strips.
Funded by Kickstarter and featuring names as familiar as Seth Green and as obscure as Berkley Breathed (creator of ‘Bloom County’) and Bill Amend (of ‘Foxtrot’ fame), ‘Dear Mr. Watterson’ is, at the very least, decent. Everyone expresses their admiration for the man and their love of his little half-pint legacy. Some even suggest that the reason he left the business was due to the overwhelming cult developed around his creation. Apparently, Watterson went into the comic business after years of hating his job in advertising. Once ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ hit, however, there appears to be a bit of “be careful what you wish for” involved. Since he’s not here to speak for himself – there is no last act denouement with a reluctant Watterson “setting the record straight” – we are left with an overview and an obvious question, both of which are addressed in a slightly superficial manner by Schroeder and his interviewees.
Indeed, few will find the ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ overview all that informative. Sure, we learn that Watterson named the characters after famous thinkers (John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes) and how he famously turned down offers to exploit his work from names such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and the king of cartoons, the House of Mouse, Disney. Along the way, we learn of the strip’s influence, of the constant battles with United Feature Syndicate over content and the possibility of commercializing the property, and the hidden messages buried within certain panels. Yet there is very little backstage drama here, since Schroeder didn’t seek Watterson’s input (the artist notoriously sends out a standard letter to anyone making such inquiries), and that’s one of the areas where ‘Dear Mr. Watterson’ is sorely lacking. Even a famously private person like Charles Schultz eventually opened up (during a PBS documentary on ‘Peanuts’) to explain his technique and influences.
And then there is the question of why – why leave a potential half-billion dollars of possible profit on the table over a concept as cornball as privacy, or “principles.” Sure, we applaud Mr. Watterson for making the choice commiserate to his own ideals, but how many of us would see a lifetime’s reward laying out on some table and not snatch it up, knowing full well that such sordid selling out would at least guarantee the family a solid, worry-free future? There’s nobility, and then there’s being ridiculous. Of course, by walking away, Watterson guaranteed that some cable channel out there wouldn’t be showing a nonstop series of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ 3D travesties (featuring child star flavor of the week as our hero), or that some kid isn’t running around with a fully functional action tiger in their mitts. Compared to something like Disney’s treatment of Pixar’s ‘Cars,’ you begin to see Watterson’s point.
Yet by ignoring its popularity and people’s desire to share in it, Bill Watterson becomes an enigma, one demanding some concrete understanding. This is where the documentary’s chief failure lies. Had we been given some indication beyond the obvious, had Watterson suffered some setback which made him wary of the whole fame game, we might be able to understand his need to remain secluded (even Stephen King, who suffered through a notorious stalker, isn’t so closed off). The dilemma here is what to appreciate – the man, his muse, or the meaning of his stance. Sometimes, ‘Dear Mr. Watterson’ nails all of these notions. At other instances, we are left hanging and unfulfilled. Of course, when you have an uncooperative subject and no desire to play investigative journalist, that’s usually what happens.
Still, depending on how much you adore ‘Calvin and Hobbes‘ as both a creation and a comic, ‘Dear Mr. Watterson’ will either be a disappointment or a discovery. It will either function as a fascinating glimpse (emphasis on the last word there) into a complicated and ultimately unsettled subject, or a true devotional from a fellow ‘C&H’ freak. There is nothing wrong with wearing your heart on your sleeve. Sometime, such loyalty leads to discoveries both within yourself and outside the source of your fidelity. Joel Allen Schroeder managed to make a movie about something he loves. For him, that’s all that matters. For fans of film and documentaries, however, ‘Dear Mr. Watterson’ may have too much fanaticism and not enough fact.