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Review: 'Dear Mr. Watterson' A Breezy Walk Through The Mostly Well Known History Of 'Calvin And Hobbes'

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by Kevin Jagernauth
November 14, 2013 10:00 AM
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On November 18, 1985, Bill Watterson unveiled "Calvin And Hobbes" in a handful of newspapers but by the end of its decade-long run in December 31, 1995, it had become a comic sensation with a reach and popularity that no daily strip has matched since. In fact, as the documentary "Dear Mr. Watterson" posits, had the strip launched today, in an era when print is quickly being overtaken by digital, and the comics pages have become even smaller, there is little chance it would have achieved its phenomenal success. But luckily for the many fans of the strip, it was nearly universally embraced after it debuted, and because of it's finite run, it's history in those ten years has mostly been well documented. But the enduring popularity of "Calvin And Hobbes" has made a documentary about the comic an inevitability, and it's hard to fault the sweet-natured "Dear Mr. Watterson" for too much, even if it's not all that revelatory.

The well-intentioned nature of the movie started early, with a Kickstarter campaign raising enough funds to get it across the finish line. And credit to director Joel Allen Schroeder, making his first full length feature, he gets a pretty fantastic array of talking heads to contribute to his documentary. But things get off to a rocky start when the focus is not on the comic exactly, but on the filmmaker himself. Clearly inspired by personality-fueled documentarians like Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore—but having nowhere near their charisma—we're taken through a pretty tedious intro about the director's own introduction "Calvin And Hobbes," complete with a brief interview with his parents for some reason. It's presumably a device to inject some personality into the proceedings, but it falls flat and feels self-indulgent and misguided, but luckily it isn't long before Schroeder cedes the camera to the experts.

And while the movie settles into an endless string of talking heads for the middle third of the picture, luckily for the director, their input is insightful and fascinating. And it's another credit to Schroeder that given that Bill Watterson is known to shun most media attention (though he recently gave a rare interview to Mental Floss), his film is still pretty comprehensive without the cartoonist's participation. A brief history of Watterson's pre-"Calvin And Hobbes" cartooning is provided and nicely shows how his style and even his signature changed in the years leading up to the launch of the comic, and according to everyone involved with the doc, it was a game changer. The cartoonists who provide commentary thankfully aren't fawning, and give carefully considered insights into why Watterson was important and influential. Jef Mallett of "Frazz" fame is given space to reply to critics who've stated his comic is little more than a shameful ripoff of Watterson's work, with folks like Bill Ament ("FoxTrot"), Jan Eliot ("Stone Soup") and historian Charles Solomon delivering great context that underscores why the comic creator is so revered. From demanding and then being allowed to break free of the Sunday cartoon format to deliver some of his most adventurous work, to his at times thematically heavy and densely written strips that were a change of pace from most of gag driven fare found on the daily comics page, Watterson broke all sorts of ground.

But for all the popularity of the strip, there is a good reason why you haven't yet seen an animated film, very few licensed products or anything officially bearing the images of "Calvin And Hobbes": because Bill Watterson fought against it. As fans have known for years, the cartoonist waged a bitter battle with Universal Uclick (the company that syndicates his work) to prevent any merchandising from his strip. As Uclick editor John Glynn notes, it was a decision that had tens and hundreds of millions dollars at stake not just for the publishers, but for Watterson too, however the integrity of the comic ultimately prevailed. For now. Because as Uclick President Lee Salem casually notes, they still technically have the rights to do whatever they want with property (Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are name-dropped as folks who came sniffing for the movie rights) but the wishes of Watterson are being respected. However, it's "Pearls Before Swine" cartoonist Stephan Pastis who really eloquently debates both sides of the argument. On the one hand, he understands that Watterson's decision to keep "Calvin And Hobbes" off lunchboxes is really about control; once those characters get in the hands of other designers and marketers trying to fit the characters onto packaging designs, the purity of the comic begins to get diluted. But on the other hand, Pastis fails to see the harm in a stuffed Hobbes doll, something that innately allows whatever child has it, to embrace the same imaginative spirit as Calvin. 

Yet, as admirable the depth and scope Schroeder reachers for, there is not much new here for fans of "Calvin And Hobbes" outside of some early Watterson work and minor bits of trivia that get revealed. And as admirable the reach that Schroeder makes in putting together this low budget affair, there are some flaws that aren't so easy to overlook. The uneven focus of the movie (which includes random fans talking about their passion for the comic), the incessant score by We Were Pirates that would've worked better in small doses, and the intrusion of the filmmaker himself, can often cause the "Dear Mr. Watterson" to dip and sag in spots. But the 90-minute documentary doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is: a love letter to a great comic, providing a digestible version of its history with an eye to its legacy. [B]


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