The hugely popular daily comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” syndicated from 1985 to 1995 in as many as 2,400 newspapers, provides a surprisingly rich engine for filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder’s captivating love letter of a documentary, “Dear Mr. Watterson.” The film, named for “Calvin” creator Bill Watterson, offers not only an in-depth look at the comic strip’s unique influence but also a concise snapshot of the dwindling state of newspapers and their “funny pages.”
The boyish Schroeder proves an endearing guide as he treks to Watterson’s hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where some think the notoriously reclusive cartoonist may still live (other reports simply peg his current residence as “Greater Cleveland”). But this is no search-for-Salinger-type journey. The picturesque burg instead serves as a kind of ground zero of enlightenment for so many things “Calvin and Hobbes” (Look, there’s the Popcorn Shop! Triangle Park!)
Elsewhere, Schroeder interviews a starry array of cartoonists, including Berkeley Breathed (“Bloom County”), Stephan Pastis (“Pearls Before Swine”) and Jan Eliot (“Stone Soup”), plus authors, curators, historians and the toon’s syndicators, all of whom wax poetic about Watterson’s creation and its enduring influence. Also meaningfully discussed is the cartoonist’s staunch refusal to merchandise his beloved characters — the audacious, 6-year-old Calvin and his clever stuffed tiger, Hobbes — much beyond the strip’s best-selling book collections.
Schroeder’s close-ups of the colorful comic strip panels look terrific on screen, with much of the rest of the film nicely matching the toon’s jaunty vibrancy. An enjoyable score by We Were Pirates adds to the fun.
“Dear Mr. Watterson.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. At Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood.