Mr. Rogers was an American icon.
The host and creator of the show, Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, he influenced countless children with his personality, warmth, puppeteering, values, music and teachings for over 30 years. His secret was that, unlike other adults and their shows, he treated children with respect and intelligence. He fostered emotional intelligence by teaching children that it was okay to have complex feelings, as long they weren’t used as an excuse for negative behaviour. He taught children to feel empathy for themselves and others.
Directed wonderfully by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), the drama A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood isn’t quite a biopic as the trailers had hinted. It’s less about Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) and more about the impact he had on the world. Tom Hanks, perfectly cast in the role, spent countless hours studying footage of the educator. He doesn’t quite get his mannerisms right, but he certainly captures his warm essence with a wonderfully understated performance. Hanks is careful not to upsell Mr. Rogers, yet somehow makes him very lovable.
You could say that Mr. Rogers isn’t even the lead character of A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. The film is loosely based on a real story, and told from the perspective of Lloyd Vogel, played well by Matthew Rhys. Here, Vogel plays an almost cynical journalist who has been asked to profile Mr. Rogers for Esquire.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood works beautifully because of the relationship between America’s favourite children’s host and a cynical journalist
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood works beautifully because of the relationship between these two men. While Mr. Rogers is, like his TV persona, warm, whimsical and good, Vogel is a jaded man, damaged by a bad childhood and an ugly relationship with his father. At the risk of sounding cheesy, in Mr. Rogers, he almost discovers a father figure. When Vogel talks, Mr. Rogers listens, carefully and reassuringly.
The film has plenty of hilarious moments because the two characters are so different. As their personalities clash, we can’t help but laugh. Vogel is such a cynic that he believes Mr. Rogers has put on an act. He can’t accept that America’s favourite children’s host is so nice.
Wanting to write a fluff piece exposing Rogers, Vogel interviews him often and spends a lot of time with him. When Vogel asks some provocative questions, Rogers takes out a couple of puppets and asks Vogel about his childhood.
There are several moments where A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood feels like it’s in danger of getting too sweet but, to her credit, Marielle Heller shows enough restraint to allow us to enjoy the narrative.
After more problems with his father, Vogel returns to Rogers where there’s an unbelievably weird but whimsical scene that feels odd in the film, yet is somehow also the one of the best sequences.
There are several moments where A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood feels like it’s in danger of getting too sweet but, to her credit, Marielle Heller shows enough restraint to allow us to enjoy the narrative. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t all feel-good. There are many well-written scenes with drama, pain and other complex emotions.
Even if you’re not familiar with Mr. Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is worth a watch. To learn more about the man and for an honest look at his legacy, watch the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour?
Rated PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight and some mild language
Published in Dawn, ICON, January 5th, 2020