‘It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’: Why 2019 Is the Perfect Year for a Mister Rogers Biopic

When the trailer for It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood dropped earlier this week, people took to it immediately, as if applying a band-aid to a wounded psyche. When it comes to soothing people in troubled times, few if any people have topped Fred Rogers.

With Tom Hanks playing the beloved TV host, it was like a double dose of comfort. It was announced months ago that Hanks would play the part, but actually seeing Tom Hanks toss a shoe from one hand to the other proved irresistible to many. 

A lot of biopics tend to be heavy and downbeat, partly because their subjects met untimely ends. Example: Lincoln. Mister Rogers didn’t shy away from sad stories, but by and large, his isn’t one of them.

Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks | Jordi Vidal/Getty Images

What the Mister Rogers movie covers

The movie, due for release November 22, does not cover the entirety of Mister Rogers’ life and career. As many biopics have done lately, including Lincoln and Selma, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood focuses on a specific period or event. Lincoln was about the development and struggle over the Emancipation Proclamation, while Selma covered the 1965 voting marches in that Alabama city. 

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood details what happens when a cynical journalist (Matthew Rhys) reluctantly accepts an assignment to write a profile about Fred Rogers for Esquire Magazine.

The movie changes the writer’s name from Tom Junod to Lloyd Vogel, but the movie also makes it clear that Mister Rogers had a profound impact on the writer. 

The Esquire article, titled “Can You Say … Hero?” recounted this story about an encounter between Mister Rogers and kids on the subway in New York: 

Though of all races, the schoolchildren were mostly black and Latino, and they didn’t even approach Mister Rogers and ask him for his autograph. They just sang. They sang, all at once, all together, the song he sings at the start of his program, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and turned the clattering train into a single soft, runaway choir.

Hanks, one of the most popular and beloved of actors, has something of a lock on playing iconic childhood figures. In 2013 he played none other than Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, which detailed the story behind and creation of the classic 1964 film Mary Poppins

This is the second movie about Mister Rogers in two years

One of the reasons this is an ideal time to release a movie about Fred Rogers is that there was a movie about him last year too, called Won’t You Be My Neighbor, directed by Oscar winner Morgan Neville. That documentary did cover the span of Rogers’ life and career, focusing particularly on his uncanny ability to soothe troubled souls.

The movie earned rave reviews from critics, with many noting that it seemed like a balm for troubled times. Calvin Wilson of the St. Louis Post Dispatch wrote, “At a time when tolerance and compassion often seem to be under siege, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? reminds us that the softest voices often have the strongest impact.”

The movie made $22 million at the box office, making it the highest-grossing documentary of 2018. 

Mister Rogers’ impact lives on

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran on national public TV from 1968 through 2001, having touched the lives of millions of children. While other children’s shows tended to shy away from difficult subjects, Fred Rogers comforted kids about divorce and even the Vietnam War. 

Rogers himself passed away in 2003, but his impact was such that to this day, whenever a national tragedy occurs, a meme circulates featuring Mister Rogers saying “Look for the helpers.” 

As a Washington Post essay on the trailer notes, “‘Please don’t ruin my childhood,’ Vogel’s wife asks the journalist as he sets out to tell the real story of Fred Rogers. A lot of people might ask the same of a biopic, and by all indications they have nothing to fear.”