Mr Roger’s is such a beloved figure in American culture it’s difficult to know the best way into him. A warts and all expose may prove difficult as he was by all accounts a paragon of virtue. Yet making such a character the lead risks isolating the audience and creating little drama. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood allows audiences to experience Roger’s through the eyes of the man who wrote an in depth article on his life and impact, following a lengthy interview process. As journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) gets to know the American Icon he begins to realise how important his lessons really are.
The framing device of the film is that of an episode of Mr Roger’s Neighbourhood. The film opens with the familiar tracking shot of the model town and Mr Roger’s delivering his monologue on the theme of the episode and the friend he hopes to help. All establishing shots show the settings of the film to be just another part of Mr Roger’s Neighbourhood. Aside from being charming and aesthetically pleasing, it places even the darkest sequences within the context of Roger’s safe show. Roger’s says that anything human is mentionable and anything mentionable is manageable. By making the world of the film just pieces of Roger’s world, it makes everything that occurs within manageable.
The simple of joy of Roger’s teachings have not aged a day since he made his first television appearance. We see him talk to young people about disease, death and anger. Yet inspire of Roger’s unreal serenity, the film is keen to make the point that Roger’s is not saintly. There is nothing inexplicable or impossible about his life and manner. All of it is aspirational and it takes work. The last thing Roger’s would ever do is suggest he was better than those he tried to help and the film communicates that beautifully.
Of course this is in large part due to Tom Hanks and his commitment to the role. Perhaps the accent isn’t quite perfect but the manner is flawless. The cadence and attitude is every bit the completely natural, patient man who delighted millions of children for decades. Hanks is compelling to watch as his vocal control and gentle manner offer a sharp contrast to conventionally charismatic characters. Every time he pauses to let a thought land or to find the right way to respond, it’s intoxicating.
Stylistically the film is very inventive. Dream sequences take us inside of the model neighbourhood and the film doesn’t shy away from the songs and sense of wonder that kept the TV show so enchanting. The rigorous routine of the shows is demonstrated as we see Roger’s methodically repeat the same intro time and again, always seeming just a little delighted to be there. Perhaps this is also a film about how beautiful old age can be if you’re able to delight in a life well spent.
If there is a complaint to be made it is perhaps that the story of Lloyd Vogel is never quite as interesting as Roger’s. The writing and performance of Vogel is a little stilted. Perhaps following the perspective of one of the many children he affected would have been more effective. Yet by making the protagonist an adult it does serve to make the point that toy never grow out of needing these lessons. I just wish the reality had been as smoothly executed as the fantastic.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood follows Won’t You Be My Neighbour as a reminder of how important and revolutionary Mr Roger’s approach to children’s entertainment was. With a mild manner and a genuine smile he was able to demonstrate that making children feel heard and teaching them good ways to deal with their emotions, is paramount. This is a charming, funny and surprisingly important film.