I can’t imagine anyone genuinely dislikes either Fred Rogers or Tom Hanks. Mr. Rogers is one of the most beloved figures in children’s television, and Hanks has been considered to be one of the most talented and likeable working actors for a long while now.
So, when you marry the likability of both by having Hanks play Mr. Rogers in a film, naturally one would expect one of the most wholesome and feel-good movies of the year. And that’s precisely what “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is.
The film centers around the relationship that develops between Rogers and a journalist named Lloyd Vogel. The odd part is that Rogers isn’t the main character of this movie — the journalist is. Lloyd, who is based on the real-life journalist Tom Junod, is an investigative reporter who has developed a reputation for his relentless pursuit of exposing the dark sides of people. He is assigned to write a very brief profile on Mr. Rogers for a magazine about heroes. He goes into his interviews with Rogers anticipating to find some inner demons to exploit, but he instead discovers that Rogers is the same incredibly caring man on and off the television screen.
When I first realized the film would be focusing on this journalist rather than Rogers, I wasn’t so sure it would work out. Frankly, Lloyd was a pretty unlikeable guy. He was a selfish jerk who often made impulsive decisions without any regard to how they would affect other people.
Then he met Rogers, who helped Lloyd find a brighter perspective on life. He shows Lloyd there’s much more to life than his own experiences, and the smallest acts of kindness and encouragement can make a big difference in an often depressing world.
In the role of Rogers, Hanks is just as great as you would expect him to be. By changing his tone of voice, the way in which he moves and his overall demeanor, Hanks crafts a really accurate impersonation of Rogers. There is no arguing that Hanks gives a fantastic performance in this film, and he might even get an Oscar nomination for it, but I’ve got to be honest — I didn’t see him as Mr. Rogers. Whenever he was on-screen, I always just saw Hanks doing a really good impression of Rogers. He never disappeared into the role, but there’s a good chance this is because Rogers is such an icon that nobody, not even the legendary Tom Hanks, can really capture every lovable detail of his nature.
The film’s story is nothing too crazy. It plays out pretty much exactly as you would expect it to, but with a heartwarming movie like this, that isn’t such a bad thing. You go into the movie expecting an emotional film about Rogers helping a man overcome his own shortcomings, and that’s exactly what you get. It leaves the audience feeling elated, which can be a difficult thing to do.
One small complaint I have about the movie is the way it is framed narratively. The movie is bookended by the beginning and end of an episode of “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.” The whole film is told as if it is an episode of that show. At the beginning of the film, Mr. Rogers comes in the front door singing his iconic song. He swaps out his jacket for a sweater from the closet, and then sits down and changes his shoes. After the song is over, he looks up smiling, says "Hello, neighbor," then talks directly to the film’s viewers. He introduces them to Lloyd and talks about the unhealthy relationship Lloyd has with his own father. He explains how unhappy Lloyd is, and how he's just continually stuck in a bad situation.
This attempt to turn the whole movie into an episode of the show even carries over into the transitional and establishing shots of the film. This means that, instead of using shots of a real cityscape or a car driving on a highway, everything is recreated in the same miniature style of Rogers’ show. The camera pans in and around the miniature town that is set up on a table, in the exact same fashion it did in the original show. I see what the filmmakers were going for with this approach," but it pulled me out of the movie every time it happened.
As a whole, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is exactly what one would want it to be. It’s a wholesome exploration of Mr. Rogers helping a man learn to be better. Hanks, while not disappearing into the role, does a fantastic recreation of Rogers, and I expect he’ll get some love for it come awards season. Is “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” one of the year’s best films? No, but it’s still a solidly enjoyable and emotional story that provides just enough nostalgia for viewers to eat up almost every moment of it.