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Why Mr. Rogers goes to war in Adi Shankar's latest Bootleg Universe film

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Mar 20, 2018, 12:00 PM EDT

Tuesday morning saw the release of the first trailer for Won't You Be My Neighbor, a documentary about the life of children's entertainer Fred Rogers — a man better known to generations of kids as Mr. Rogers.

It wasn't the only film about the genial television host, who would have turned 90 today, to hit the internet.

Mr. Rogers: A War Hero, a new entry in producer Adi Shankar's Bootleg Universe series of short films, takes a very approach to telling the man's life story. Instead of a factual recounting of Rogers' transition from minister training to TV icon, the 12-minute short plays on years of (unfounded) rumors and tall tales to tell a very alternative origin story. Here, he goes to Vietnam and becomes a supersoldier, learning the importance of kindness and generosity along the way.

"I like the idea of bootleg biopics, because biopics are bulls***,” says Shankar, who also produces Netflix's Castlevania anime series. "They're all made up anyways. They're usually changing 30 percent of the story, maybe even more. The reason we make biopics as a society is to teach the next generation. It's to synthesize someone's life into the key learnings and then use that as a vehicle to educate the next generation, right? I feel like you can do that better with a tall tale than you can with a Lifetime movie recount of the beats of their life."

Shankar, who has also produced films such as The Grey and Dredd, as well as the upcoming battle rap movie Bodied, wants to be clear: He grew up adoring Mr. Rogers, having watched the show all throughout his childhood in Hong Kong. The short, directed by Kenlon Clark, is meant as a love-letter to the icon, giving him a modern origin story that mirrors what we see in modern action films. It's dedicated to educators, including Clark's mother, and is meant to impart both the stupidity of war and suggest that teachers and people who work with young people are the forward-thinking heroes we deserve.

Turning Mr. Rogers into a violent soldier is a means to an end, not some kind of perversion, Shankar promises.

"This one is just purely a tribute to this guy," he says. "The idea behind putting it in this action, war movie context is I feel like that's a way to introduce him to a younger generation. Yeah, we can all make a documentary about him, cool. The documentary's great. The documentary is going to mainly get people who already knew about him."