Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

“Would you be mine? Could you be mine?” Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a staple television show for millions of kids growing up in the second half of the 20th century. Fred Rogers used his daily program to teach young people about dealing with emotions and real life in positive ways. He treated children as intelligent humans who could learn about difficult things through the use of puppets in The Land of Make Believe, his neighborhood toy set. In 1998, just a few short years before the show ended, Esquire magazine wrote a famous piece on Fred Rogers. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based on that article, “Can you say… ‘Hero’?” written by journalist Tom Junod, and does more than showcase Fred’s genuine kindness, but tells a story about a man’s changed life because of it.
The film is structured sort of like one of Mr. Rogers’ 865 episodes. To start the story, Fred walks through the door singing his famous song, takes off his jacket and dons one of his sweaters from the closet, changes shoes, and welcomes his audience that day. During the ‘episode’ Mr. Rogers introduces us to the fictional character Lloyd Vogel (based on Tom Junod). Lloyd (Matthey Rhys, The Americans, Burnt) has lost his faith in humanity due to some unfortunate familial circumstances, leaving him disappointed and unable to trust himself. Working for Esquire, he’s been awarded journalism’s highest honor twice but also has a bad reputation for his often mean-spirited writing style (also in real life he had just written an article that outed Kevin Spacey as gay…for no apparent reason). When he’s asked to write about Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks, Toy Story, “America’s Dad”), Lloyd reaches out for a short interview, but Fred would rather take his time to get to know Lloyd too. The film does not walk through either man’s life step-by-step, but rather portrays how Mr. Rogers and Mr. Junod struck up a friendship that meant the world to them both.
Could Tom Hanks be anymore of America’s Dad? Yes, yes he can. Hanks portrays Mr. Rogers in such a sincere way, paying tribute not only to the cosmic effect that the man had on the lives of adults and children everywhere but also to the genuine person he was. There was no act he was putting on, much to the dismay of Lloyd in the film. Mr. Rogers was kind and caring and gentle both in front of the camera and in real life. His soothing voice and relaxed yet attentive nature made those he interacted with feel important and heard, even if just for a moment. Hanks captured this perfectly in his role in the film, somehow adding to the legacy of Fred even after he’s gone.
Whereas 2018’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor used actual footage of Mr. Rogers and his television show to highlight some of the man’s greatest accomplishments and pay tribute to his career, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes a different approach. I almost thought that you could have taken Mr. Rogers out of the film completely and still been left with a good story of a man who comes back from the brink to see his glass half-full and find joy in the life he has, but then again Mr. Rogers is really the reason the story works in the first place. It’s his unconditional positive regard and humbleness that gives life to the story of Lloyd and the investment in each other’s lives. It wouldn’t be the film it is without Fred, but the story of Lloyd does hold up as a good story nonetheless. Rhys is very convincing with his hatred toward his absentee father and his lack of time for his own family, but it’s his character turn in the story that delivers all the feels. With some guidance from Fred he finds it in his heart to forgive the mistakes his father made and reconcile with his family, which in turn helps him to re-focus his commitment to his own wife and son. It’s a beautiful story that may not garner all the awards attention (other than possibly Hanks’ performance) but is heart-warming and perfect for this time of year.
One aspect of the film that I did really enjoy was the way they used the World of Make Believe. Transitions from scene to scene were often depicted as moving throughout the toy city, so instead of repeated views of skyscrapers and the subway system we were given block towers and painted-on roadways. It was a delightful use of the neighborhood set design and a welcomed, stylistic change. And alongside this outside-the-box thinking, the writers and production staff also added a nice touch with changing the aspect ratio and picture quality when moving from what was supposed to be live television to the film itself. When Fred was filming for the show, we were taken back in time to the look of an old Magnavox tube tv with an often grainy and square picture. It brought back all the memories I have of watching old episodes on an early weekend morning, sitting on my totally 90’s stained, eggshell carpet with a bowl of cereal, not a care in the world. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the magic of movies.
I hope you find time to see this film, it truly is one worth watching, if not in the theatre than at home on-demand or Redbox rental. But truly a perfect Thanksgiving break movie for the whole family to see if that’s your slice of pie. It took me a few extra days to get this review finished and uploaded because of my own family being in town for the holiday, so I will also have a review of Frozen 2 up sometime this weekend because we went to see it yesterday. A happy Thanksgiving to everyone and enjoy the rest of the holiday weekend, cheers!