Joel Allen Schroeder’s documentary Dear Mr. Watterson is billed as “An Exploration of ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’” but it might be better described as an adoration of the famed newspaper comic. Not only does every person who appears in the film love “Calvin and Hobbes,” but they love it above all other examples of the form, and view it as the most formative part of their lives. “Calvin and Hobbes” is a masterful work, so the adoration is well-deserved, but such an outpouring of love makes for an uninteresting documentary.
Rather like the odious Salinger from earlier this year, Schroeder has the problem that his author is reclusive in the extreme (in fact, Watterson might be more antisocial than J.D. Salinger was). So he deserves credit, at least, for getting everything right that Salinger got wrong. This picture is not at all oppressive with its adoration, and it does not tease with the real-world presence of Watterson for a cheap thrill. Anyone who loves the comic strip will get some enjoyment out of this picture, thanks to a simple style in which Schroeder’s elegant presentation of the actual comic strips understands the whimsy and philosophy which made “Calvin and Hobbes” so groundbreaking.
And yet, the constant overflow of love inevitably makes the film clumsy. At one point, a few of the talking heads make a distinction between “high art” and “low art,” asserting that most comics are seen as the latter, but Watterson’s extraordinary drawings were the former. However, since everyone in the movie loves the comic so much, the “low art” argument is basically a straw man; there is no debate being presented here. A scene that would explain where the title of the movie came from, and possibly why Schroeder made some of the artistic decisions that he did, is inexplicably withheld until after the end credits as though this were a Marvel movie.
The film is at its best when it addresses the issue of merchandising, because that’s the one place where Watterson was arguably wrong, and the film acknowledges that fact. Watterson was adamantly against the commercialization of his characters, not wanting Hobbes to be used to sell insurance decades from now in the way that Charles Schultz’s creations are used today. Yet that hasn’t stopped a legion of bootleggers from profiting in ways that cheapen the character even further; bumper stickers showing Calvin urinating on whatever brand of car that the buyer dislikes, for instance. Professional cartoonist Stephen Pastis asks, very reasonably, why Watterson could not have authorized the creation of a Hobbes doll and nothing else, and the film is at least willing to consider that he is right.
At one point in the film, one of the interviewees speculates on Watterson’s influences by saying, “Well, I don’t know Bill Watterson, so I don’t want to speak to his motives.” That is the problem: even if Schroeder had zero chance of speaking to Watterson himself, he would have done well to feature more people willing to go out on a limb when speaking about him. Schroeder is able to visit Watterson’s hometown, find his earliest cartooning for his high school yearbook and his local newspaper, but that is not an “exploration” of the comic strip because there is no real emotion behind it other than the worship of a dedicated fan. One does not need to do any exploring to know that “Calvin and Hobbes” is beloved, and Dear Mr. Watterson doesn’t do much more than remind us of that fact.
— Mark Young