Do you remember “Calvin and Hobbes,” the comic strip about the adventures of a six-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger, that ran in over 2,500 newspapers from 1985-1995? How about the sticker of the little boy peeing on a Ford logo on the Chevy in front of you the last time you got off the Interstate?
Well, now there’s a better way to jog your memory about the magical comic strip by Bill Watterson, who retired in 1995. Joel Allen Schroeder’s documentary, “Dear Mr. Watterson,” is more of a love letter to “Calvin and Hobbes” than a true documentary, but that might be exactly what this almost 30-year-old strip needs.
The film, which is available for download and will have a limited theatrical run starting Nov. 15, is essentially a reflection of a dozen or so cartoonists, librarians, editors and fans of the comic. They share everything from stories about how they first read the strip, to how it’s influenced their lives. There are theories on why the strip was never licensed and why Watterson has shunned the spotlight since the strip ended.
While this sounds like a documentary on paper, it was not executed very well. For one thing, the film really doesn’t present a point of view other than “Bill Watterson was a genius.” What Schroeder documented was really a bunch of people gushing over how great “Calvin and Hobbes” was — and still is — for 90 minutes, with no real counterpoint.
Maybe I’m being too critical — this film did start out as a Kickstarter campaign, so maybe I should cut it a little slack. Maybe I’m a little jaded — since I used to be a cartoonist whose work was often compared to Watterson’s work and I had to turn the film off every 15 minutes because I got so frustrated that friends of mine were in it but nobody ever called me. Maybe, like most “Calvin and Hobbes” fans, I wanted more than just people reminiscing about how great the strip was. Maybe I just want more “Calvin and Hobbes.”
One thing that I found frustrating (other than being reminded of my own failures) is that for the first half hour or so of the film, dozens of various people are interviewed and never identified. I kept wondering who these people were and by the time they were identified on screen, I had pretty much written off ever knowing who they were. Again, maybe I should be less critical.
That’s not to say that the film is bad. A highpoint for me was seeing the motion graphics created by Mike Dillinger to “animate” Watterson’s art — almost as if they were being drawn and colored right before our eyes. Since “Calvin and Hobbes” was never licensed for animation, this may be as close as we ever get to seeing Calvin in motion. For that, I’d recommend the film to anyone who’s already a fan of the strip.
But are a bunch of warm fuzzy stories and clever animations enough to sustain a 90-minute film? If anything, if you’re already a fan of the strip, it will get you thinking about it again. And for anyone unfamiliar with the comic, it may get them to seek out one of the collections to read more — but I’m a little worried that anyone else going to see this film will just be bored.and confused.
Overall I’d say “Dear Mr. Watterson” is worth watching, if only to get people thinking about the strip again or to introduce new readers to it. I would have liked to see more of a documentary point of view play out on screen, but to be honest, maybe a love letter is what “Calvin and Hobbes” really needs.
After all, isn’t this a better way to remember the characters than seeing Calvin peeing on a car logo?Steve Troop is a puppeteer and cartoonist who published the “Melonpool” comic strip online from 1996-2005. He can be reached at melonpool.com.