From the late ‘60s to the early 2000s, bright, knitted cardigans and ragged puppets lit up television screens worldwide as Fred Rogers taught children the importance of being a good neighbor. Following the success of 2018’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the impact of Fred Rogers has continued to touch audiences with the new film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” — a wonderfully nostalgic and wholesome portrayal of the empathetic and kind nature of the man who shaped the lives of millions.
Loosely based on the Esquire article “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” follows the story of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist tasked with profiling Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), the star of the children’s television program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Amid his own personal trauma and pessimistic view of life, Vogel’s task turns into a life lesson in dealing with emotion, as he begins and invests in a genuine friendship with Rogers.
One of the most beloved elements of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was the gentle, colorful aesthetic it presented to its audience. Following this same model, the film takes on a colorful palette that reflects the whimsy and fantastical world of Fred Rogers’ neighborhood. The use of miniatures elevates this aesthetic to even greater levels, making viewers feel immersed in the world they once viewed as a child. With the incorporation of classic puppets such as Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday XIII, as well as classic songs from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” viewers are transported to their childhoods and given the opportunity to reminisce. The film’s sublime use of color and creative structure tie together in a way that maintains the childlike wonder of the original show, utilizing make-believe within the context of real-life anguish.
By far, the best element of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is Hanks’ performance as Rogers. When Hanks is onscreen, it is impossible to focus on anything or anyone who isn’t him. With both a striking resemblance to Rogers and a seemingly innate demeanor of kindness, Hanks is not only able to tap into the physicality of Rogers but captures his essence in a strikingly accurate way as well. Somehow, Hanks brings to life the spirit of Rogers, coupling both his gentle and compassionate natures and inducing an emotional response in viewers whether they grew up with the original show or not.
The plot doesn’t, however, center around the story of Rogers. Instead, it focuses on that of a frustrated, downtrodden journalist and his own personal growth. The film finds fault in placing its emphasis on the rather unlikable character of Vogel, whose character’s background is centered around basic “deadbeat father” and “dead mother” tropes. Though the character of Vogel is meant to provide a distinct contrast from that of Rogers, this dichotomy is rather frustrating when the more likable character is pushed into the shadows. Because of the lovable nature of Hanks’ performance, it is difficult and rather painstaking to enjoy parts of the film that don’t include Rogers at all.
Despite this setback, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” flourishes in its emotional moments and nostalgia, making audiences relish in the innocence of their youth and strive to be kinder people. It is impossible to discuss this film and not mention the feelings it evokes: the feeling of holding on to a stuffed toy from childhood, the feeling of being wrapped up in a warm blanket before bed, the feeling of hugging someone you love. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” resembles a reincarnation of all the goodness Rogers brought to the world. It is impossible to watch this film and not appreciate the beauty of being alive. It is impossible to not want to be a little more like Rogers, the man who brought happiness to the lives of so many.
The delicate hum of piano keys playing a theme song all too familiar, one that is filled with nostalgia and the innocence of childhood, is one that will resonate among adult audience members with tear-stained faces. Many of them may have lost their “special friends,” their innocence and their childhoods. But they haven’t lost the ability to be a good neighbor and friend to someone else — they haven’t lost the spirit of Mister Rogers.