“OK, boomer,” one might say after hearing about how wonderful and iconic Fred Rogers was back in the day. Most young people today didn’t grow up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on the Public Broadcasting Service and don’t get what the big whoop is about. But after sitting in a theater with people twice our age and seeing the joy on their faces as the “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” theme song played, we began to understand what Mr. Rogers meant to so many people. He was more than a kid’s television personality — he was the humble hero of a generation.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a two-part character story. Entering the theater, one might expect the film to focus on Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks). However, it was really about the effect that he had on Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), based off Tom Junod, a journalist who struggled with anger and a rocky family life and ultimately wrote a story on Mr. Rogers, titled, “Can you say… Hero?” Through Lloyd, we understand the far-reaching effect of Mr. Rogers’ positivity on the people around him.
“He was always out to remind me that underneath everything I was a good person,” Junod said in an interview with the Wheel. “And he almost succeeded in making me believe it.”
The enamouring influence that Mr. Rogers had on so many people is astounding, and it would be impossible to fit it all into one movie. Therefore, the filmmakers made the wise decision to hone in on a single, powerful story. Lloyd isn’t just Lloyd; he represents everyone who Mr. Roger helped.
When asked how the film came about, Junod said, “Sixteen years after the story was written, I heard from [the producers] — it couldn’t have been a bigger surprise. Because it was not just any story; it was this story. A story about Fred Rogers. There was no shoot-em’-up, no crime, no political scandal, no nothing — just the experience of this one man, so I was really surprised that people were interested in it.”
This film is a slow burn, but one worth sitting through. There is a spellbinding quality, both in Mr. Rogers and in the film itself, that you have to see to believe. Early in the film, Lloyd says, “I can’t tell if this guy is for real.” Initially, we completely agreed with with Lloyd — Mr. Rogers seemed too good to be true; no one could be that kind and optimistic. But by the end of the third act, both Mr. Rogers and the film itself feel truly authentic. As emotional and sweet as “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is, it never feels forced or cheesy. Every single moment is genuine, something hard to pull off in a film so unabashedly optimistic.
“He made goodness interesting,” Junod said about Rogers. “I always thought that goodness was boring. He made it really interesting.”
“A Beautiful Day,” too, makes goodness interesting.
Audiences cannot overlook the many risks the film took. There were genuinely funny scenes that could have easily been cringeworthy had they not been so well handled. One scene that comes to mind is a dream sequence in which Lloyd finds himself within Mr. Rogers’ miniature castle, meant for his puppets. It was absurd but still hilarious.
In another scene, Lloyd and Mr. Rogers sit at a diner during one of the most moving cinematic moments we have witnessed this year. In that scene, Mr. Rogers gave instructions to Lloyd, which also seemed to be instructions to the audience. He told Lloyd to think of all the people who have loved him, and the silence that followed was an opportunity for the audience to do the same. That wasn’t the only moment that Mr. Rogers seemed to have broken the fourth wall.. Several times, Mr. Rogers looked directly into the camera and spoke to the audience, as if we were watching his TV show. It was touching. Those moments were always well-done and impactful, serving as a reminder that Mr. Rogers not only helped children but people of all ages.
“I think it’s become more relevant and more resonant in 2019 than it would have been five, 10 or 15 years ago,” Junod said about the movie’s message. “We’ve come to see how much as a culture, as a society, we’ve left his example behind. And the movie to me is an opportunity to stop and say, do we really want to walk away from these ideals? Or do we want to try to slow down a little bit and embrace them?”
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a film that encourages its audience to slow down, care for others and ourselves, and find ways to “deal with our feelings.” Its message of being kind to others and to ourselves transcends age and generation.
Junod concluded, “I don’t think that there’s good people and bad people in Fred’s world, there are just people.”
This positive attitude permeates the film. “A Beautiful Day” measures up to Mr. Roger’s incredible legacy of kindness, and in today’s tumultuous world, that deserves all the praise.