A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood salutes children's television icon Fred Rogers, but it's not really about him...and that's why this intimate, heartwarming film only rarely rises above the mundane. Tom Hanks' Oscar-nominated performance elevates this all-too-familiar family drama that only really comes alive when it focuses on the kind, patient, wonderfully wise man many of us grew up with. Stellar video and audio transfers, as well as several supplements, sweeten the release. I would have preferred a more straightforward Fred Rogers biopic, but there's merit in this perspective, too, which makes this quiet, cozy movie worth a look.
Before Sesame Street, before The Electric Company, before Barney the Dinosaur and Thomas the Tank Engine, there was Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. I grew up with it, my kids grew up with it, and chances are, most of you grew up with it, too. It may not have possessed the cachet of other children's programming, but it had staying power and filled a necessary niche in the genre. (It also had an iconic theme song that's been playing on an endless loop in my brain ever since this disc landed on my doorstep!) Sure, when we outgrew the show, we occasionally mocked its eponymous host, Fred Rogers - his sugary sweetness, sing-songy speech patterns, and ultra-sensitive persona - but when we finally matured and had kids of our own, we realized the essential void he filled and rightfully revered him.
That reverence oozes from almost every frame of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which depicts not only the meaningful manner in which Rogers interacted with and influenced children, but more importantly how this TV icon helps one adult come to terms with painful personal issues and begin the healing process. Director Marielle Heller's film is not a biopic; its focus is limited to a brief episode in 1998 when Esquire magazine writer Tom Junod profiled Rogers for a special issue celebrating American heroes. What began as a run-of-the-mill assignment for Junod evolved into a long-standing friendship, mostly because Rogers turned the tables on his interviewer and inspired Junod to look inward and reevaluate his life.
Junod's name is changed to Lloyd Vogel for the film, which is merely "inspired" by the true events described above. Workaholic Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) is married with an infant child and struggling to manage his new, stressful responsibilities. At his sister's third wedding, he's forced to confront his estranged jerk of a father (Chris Cooper), and almost instantly, decades-old resentments and long-repressed anger bubble to the surface. The two come to blows at the reception, and days after their violent fistfight, Lloyd's editor (Christine Lahti) assigns her nonplussed, chagrined writer the Rogers profile.
Still nursing his wounds from the ugly confrontation, a somewhat sullen Lloyd goes to interview Rogers (Tom Hanks), who quickly quells his cynicism with his trademark altruism, warmth, and empathy. Rogers is just what Lloyd expects, only more so, and when he realizes "Mister Rogers" isn't simply a made-up character, but rather the man himself, he's utterly disarmed. As Lloyd tries to figure out what makes this unique human being tick, Rogers - much like he tries to do with his preschool viewers - subtly teaches Lloyd how to open up, express his feelings, accept and embrace his emotions, and heal his long-festering hurt.
There's a reason why Tom Hanks was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar despite receiving above-the-title billing and dominating the picture's ad campaign. Quite simply, Fred Rogers is a supporting character in his own movie. Though his aura looms large, the story belongs to Lloyd, and unfortunately, that harms the film. Yes, Lloyd's arc is touching, uplifting, and life-affirming, but we've seen it so many times before in so many other motion pictures. It may be universally relatable, but it's also stale and trite. When Mister Rogers is off the screen, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood loses its luster, yet even when he's front and center, his gentle counseling about compassion, caring, and forgiveness often lends the film the feel of an ABC Afterschool Special for adults.
Of course, another reason why Hanks nabbed an Oscar nod is his superior performance. Hanks has made a habit of portraying real-life figures of late, including Captain Richard Phillips, Walt Disney, "Sully" Sullenberger, and Ben Bradlee, and he brings his patented authenticity to this difficult role as well. While it would be easy to overdo Mister Rogers' mannerisms and inimitable voice, Hanks resists the temptation, choosing instead to quietly evoke the man's essence. The result is a beautifully modulated, understated, yet still powerful piece of work that raises a mediocre film to a higher plane.
Rhys, Cooper, and the rest of the cast are good, too, and Heller infuses the film with charm, sweetness, warmth, and a bit of wonder. (I especially like how she uses tracking shots of Mister Rogers' miniature city models as transitions when the characters travel from place to place...a lovely whimsical touch.) Unfortunately, none of it resonates as much as it should, or half as much as the exceptional documentary about Fred Rogers, 2018's Won't You Be My Neighbor?. Heller produces an honorable tribute, but all too often it only scratches the surface. That might be fitting, considering what a private man Rogers was, but the byproduct is a movie that doesn't move us as much as we wish it would.
With all the vitriol that's being spewed these days, the message of kindness, kinship, love, and understanding that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood espouses is welcome indeed. If all of our neighborhoods could be more reflective of those ideals, the world would certainly be a better place. It's just too bad the vessel this film uses to convey such important themes feels so clichéd. Mister Rogers surely hoped to change the world one person at a time, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood accurately reflects that viewpoint. He spoke softly, but his influence was profound. Everyone can learn from him, no matter their age, and that's probably this wistful film's most lasting takeaway.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. A standard-def DVD and leaflet containing a code to access the Movies Anywhere digital copy are tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for Little Women, Overcomer, and Jumanji: The Next Level precede the static menu with music.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn't a flashy film by any means, and this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer accurately reflects its source. The spotless rendering may not exude much pizzazz, but it nicely honors the movie's warm, creamy cinematography. The video sequences, which were quite appropriately shot on lower resolution cameras to give them an authentic look, nicely resemble 1970s footage, complete with interlaced lines, bleeding colors, and a slightly diffused appearance.
Contrast and clarity are quite good, grain is absent, and close-ups highlight pores and blemishes well. Details in clothing and upholstery weaves are palpable, and though the color palette is a tad muted, periodic bursts of vibrant hues - mostly care of Mister Rogers' sweaters - brighten the frame. Black levels are rich and deep, shadow delineation is fine, and no anomalies mar the pristine print. Like the movie itself, this transfer is low-key and unobtrusive, which in this case isn't really a bad thing.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a relatively sedate film, and sadly, so is its DTS-MA 5.1 track. Surround effects are sporadic at best, but noticeable stereo separation across the front channels nicely expands the soundscape. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Nate Heller's music score with ease, and solid bass frequencies supply necessary weight to the audio package. All the dialogue is well prioritized and easy to comprehend, and no distortion creeps into the mix. I expected a bit more nuance from this track, but it never quite delivered in that regard. Still, it does its job with a minimum of fuss, and that's about all we can ask of it.
A nice spate of extras enhances this release.
Audio Commentary - Director Marielle Heller and director of photography Jody Lee Lipes sit down for a low-key, somewhat tedious commentary that only diehard fans of the film will want to slog through. The duo's quiet, measured conversational style reminded me a little of the recurring NPR spoof "Delicious Dish" with Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer that was a Saturday Night Live staple back in the 1990s. That's probably apporpriate for a Mister Rogers commentary, as is the bleeping of any mild expletives on the track...the first time I've ever heard that on a commentary. (Mister Rogers would have been pleased.) The scene-specific chat covers all the bases and features some interesting bits of trivia (most of the original cameras from the television show were used to shoot the video sequences, and there was a bed bug scare on the set), but most of the time Heller and Lipes just seem to be conversing with each other, rather than trying to impart information to us, and that makes this track a bit of a bore.
Deleted & Extended Scenes (HD, 17 minutes) - Eight deleted and extended scenes are included, but none really add anything that's not expressed in the finished film.
Blooper Reel (HD, 2 minutes) - Hanks' amusing difficulties manipulating a zipper on one of Mister Rogers' sweaters as he sings "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" comprise the goofs in this brief blooper reel.
Featurette: "Everybody's Neighbor: Fred & Tom" (HD, 10 minutes) - The casting of Hanks as Mister Rogers, the project's development, the evolution of Hanks' performance, and makeup, hair, and costume choices are among the topics covered in this well-made piece. Hanks, Rhys, director Marielle Heller, and Rogers' widow Joanne Rogers are among those interviewed, and lots of behind-the-scenes footage is included.
Featurette: "The People Who Make a Neighborhood" (HD, 15 minutes) - Hanks as Mister Rogers introduces this standard making-of featurette that salutes Heller's direction and the cast's performances, analyzes the characters, chronicles the recreation of the Mister Rogers sets, and matches the real people who worked on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood with the actors portraying them in the movie.
Featurette: "Dreaming Big, Building Small" (HD, 9 minutes) - The puppets and their puppeteers are the focus of this piece, which looks at how the puppets and their miniature world were meticulously recreated.
Featurette: "Everyone Makes Mistakes" (HD, 3 minutes) - Daniel the Striped Tiger introduces this brief featurette about the gaffes both Hanks and Mister Rogers made on the set of Rogers' TV show.
If you're looking for a Fred Rogers biopic, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood will likely disappoint you. But if you're interested in a heartfelt salute to a children's television icon that showcases his empathetic character and ability to connect with and bolster the outlook of people of all ages, then you might just embrace this sincere, sweet film. Tom Hanks' uncanny incarnation of Mister Rogers makes the movie worth seeing, and almost salvages a ho-hum family-in-crisis narrative that we've seen way too many times before. Strong video and audio transfers, as well as several extras, which is worth a look if only to honor a true American hero.