Last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, from director Morgan Neville, touched the hearts of millions of Americans with its intimate and moving look at children’s television host Fred Rogers, but the documentary failed to have the same impact here in the UK, with his show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood having no place in our own history. The hope is that Tom Hanks vehicle A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood may bring this man to the rest of the world.
Fresh from the success of last year’s terrific Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Marielle Heller’s new film tells the story of journalist Lloyd Vogel, a dejected man dealing with his own issues, tasked with writing a profile on Fred Rogers for his magazine, who finds his life changed by the great man.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a genuinely lovely film that soothes the soul and affects its audience, but its portrait of Rogers is lacking. The decision to tell the story from the perspective of Vogel is in interesting one, but it comes at the expense of truly understanding the impact Rogers had.
While Rogers’ messages can naturally resonate across all ages, and his words likely need to be heard now more than ever, his focus was solely on children. As the host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he touched and changed the lives of children for many years, thanks largely because of his clear love and affection for them. He’s one of the few children’s television personalities whose legacy hasn’t been tainted by some newly discovered information; Rogers genuinely just cared about children more than anything else in the world, and wanted to do his bit to help them. That’s what he was all about, and yet it’s the most gaping hole in the film.
Apart from one seemingly forced scene on a subway, the story fails to really get to grips with Rogers’ relationship with children in any significant way, opting instead to tell the story of how he changed this one adult man’s life, and spending no real time at all focusing on what Rogers was actually all about.
None of this affects the flow or effect of the film; it’s just worth noting that, for a film that aims to bring Mister Rogers to filmgoers around the globe, it fails to really capture the essence of the man completely, by forgetting that which he’s most famous for.
Ultimately, if you’re after an accurate and powerful portrayal of the legacy of Fred Rogers, you’re still better off watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which remains a far superior film to this one. That being said, if you’re simply looking for a story that will give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside and make you feel better about yourself and others, then Heller’s film will do just that. Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as Rogers, albeit in a more supporting role than expected, capturing the likeability and humanity of the man with apparent ease.
It’s far from a perfect work and it’s certainly no classic, but it’s a particularly charming and sweet film with strong performances and significant messages.
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