It’s possible to love a work of art, a piece of music, even a comic strip, to the point of near speechlessness. That’s the problem with Joel Allen Schroeder’s heartfelt but largely inarticulate documentary Dear Mr. Watterson, which tries to capture the almost mystical appeal of Bill Watterson’s newspaper strip Calvin & Hobbes, which ran from 1985 to 1995. When Watterson felt he’d taken the strip and its characters — a spiky-haired six-year-old boy and his real live stuffed tiger sidekick — as far as he could, he retired and slipped out of the limelight for good. What’s more, Watterson refused (and, in his retirement, continues to refuse) to license his characters for any commercial purpose. Fans of the strip, millions of them, have felt bereft, left without even a coffee mug or plush toy to cling to.
Calvin & Hobbes lives on, of course. People who loved the strip as kids now share the collected strips with their own children, and probably still occasionally sneak a peek themselves. And Watterson’s name is mentioned, probably rightly, in the same breath as those of Charles Schulz, Winsor McCay, George Herriman, and Walt Kelly (the men behind Peanuts, Little Nemo, Krazy Kat, and Pogo, respectively). In the doc, Schroeder, a devout Calvin & Hobbes fan himself, approaches an assortment of cartoonists, curators, librarians, and just plain folk, asking them to explain what, exactly, is so special about this strip, in which a boy and his tiger explore the world by imagining their way through it.
The drag is that most of the responses — “It’s just so inventive!” “I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like Calvin & Hobbes!” — are so sadly unimaginative. At one point, Schroeder drives us to his childhood home, leading us up to his attic bedroom that, he informs us, his eyes aglow, was once papered nearly floor to ceiling with Calvin & Hobbes strips. That’s great — but so what? Most people hold dearly to the memory of certain things they loved as kids, but those much-fingered scraps of security blanket aren’t always enough to hold a documentary together.
You can’t really blame Schroeder or his subjects for having difficulty explaining the allure of Calvin & Hobbes. How to describe the manic joy on the faces of that boy and his tiger as they head down a snowy slope on a hell-bent sled, or guide a little red wagon through uncharted territory, pirate’s hats made from folded newspapers perched on their heads? To his credit, Schroeder hasn’t made any attempt to interview Watterson, who lives in Ohio and clearly values his privacy. And a few of the people he does reach — chiefly, cartoonists Stephan Pastis and Berkeley Breathed, respective creators of Pearls Before Swine and Bloom County — offer some astute insight into Watterson’s refusal of any and all licensing deals. Breathed, who used to exchange letters with Watterson, even shares a missive the reclusive cartoonist sent him years ago. It was illustrated with antic little figures straight out of some wackadoodle Inferno, suffering fools who’d made the mistake of selling off their creations. Breathed, at one point, flings a Bill the Cat doll out of camera range. He steals the movie, and offers the sharpest statement, by making himself the punch line.