As far as I’m aware, Mr Rogers was never a thing in the UK. I’ve heard of him but only thanks to references in American TV and movies. This lack of awareness would normally have caused me to miss a film like A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It is based solely on the proposition that Fred Rogers is one of the greatest things to ever happen to children. I’m sure he probably is but films like this tend to rely on a certain nostalgic sentimentality that I just don’t have. It wouldn’t hit on all of the levels that the filmmakers intended. But, thanks to Tom Hanks being Tom Hanks, it was an Oscar-nominated film that I had to try and watch before the ceremony.
Hanks plays Fred Rogers the star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a children’s show that ran from 1968-2001. Fred is the quintessentially nice guy and his show encourages his audience to think and talk about important topics. As Hollywood’s own Mr Nice Guy, Hanks is the obvious choice for the role and he does excel at bringing Mr Rogers’ calm and gentle manner. We also see the intelligence that was behind everything he does. Rogers has great insight into people and sees so much. In the scenes where Hanks is playing Fred Rogers playing Mr Rogers, we see why so many people have fond memories of this man. He looks for the best in everyone and is keen to promote kindness. All he wants to do is help people, especially children, see the best parts of life. It’s a cute story.
But the focus of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t actually Mr Rogers but Matthew Rhys’ investigative journalist. Lloyd Vogel is an award-winning journalist who is known for not going easy on any of his subjects. Vogel has a complicated relationship with his father and it has a major impact on his whole family. He and his wife recently had a baby and Lloyd is worried about how his lack of father figure might have a negative influence on how he turns out as a dad. When he is sent on an assignment to write a fluff-piece about Fred Rogers for a special on American heroes, Lloyd sets out to find the dark truth behind TV’s nicest man. Can Fred stand up to the journalist’s cynical world view and, perhaps, even break through his tough outer shell?
Of course, we’ve seen plenty of films where a kind-hearted and quirky person attempts to heal the damaged heart of the stubborn cynic. It’s kind of trite and overdone premise at this point, so does A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood do enough to breathe new life into it? Thanks to director Marielle Heller, it sort of does. The film is presented as an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood where we see Mr Rogers introduce the audience to Lloyd and explain his story. It’s effectively done and it really lets Heller establish Mr Rogers’ world. We see the opening of his show reimagined and all of his old characters come to life on screen again. It is a quirky and sweet way to frame the story.
It also lets Heller bring these larger than life elements to the main story. There is a fantastic dream sequence in which Lloyd is transported into the neighborhood and meets all of Mr Rogers’ puppets. This film evokes everything that Rogers wanted to do with his television show and manages to make it work alongside the heavier stuff involving Lloyd’s journey of self-discovery. Heller has a sure-hand on the reigns and keeps everything ticking along nicely. It never strays too far in one direction and combines sincerity with fun in an entertaining way. Aided by two fantastic performances in Hanks and Rhys, this film drags you in and won’t let you go until you learn something about people and about yourself.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a lovely film that celebrates a hero from many people’s childhood. It’s a film that looks at the real man behind the on-screen persona and finds that, actually, it’s all true. In an age where you constantly discover that the TV stars from your childhood are actually terrible people, it’s refreshing to see a film that is full of such charm and positivity. Although, that is not to say that the film doesn’t bring any depth to the American hero. We see moments of doubt and moments when the mask slips ever so slightly. We see the human being who put aside all of the negativity of humanity in order to try and help people. It’s not a film that I was expecting to enjoy quite so much but it’s well worth a watch. Whether Mr Rogers is already your neighbour or whether you’ve just moved in.