There are two new movies in theaters for Easter that picturize our Lord’s approach to reaching the world with God’s grace, forgiveness, and ultimate redemption: God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness and Paul, Apostle of Christ.
God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness, released to theaters March 30th, is especially strong with its compelling, timely story with a powerful, unexpected ending. This movie starts a critically needed dialogue. In the marketplace of ideas today there are many loud, opinionated voices. Many of these monologues we hear today seem more about one-sided forcing of ideas and winning arguments than about collaborative problem-solving. Discussions and disagreements about faith seem especially sharper and more divisive than ever today.
“In our society and culture right now, we have a lot of darkness,” explains David A.R. White, who returns to the role of the Rev. Dave in God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness and again serves as a producer. “There’s a lot of anger; there’s a lot of fighting. You can’t turn on the news for even a second without seeing something that’s really disturbing. This is a time in our society when it seems like we have so much tension … – we have the left, we have the right, and nobody can agree on anything. This movie really brings that out. It’s a movie about hope, about love, about healing, and, ultimately, forgiveness.”
David A.R. White again plays the role of Rev. Dave, who takes on the central role in this movie after being a supporting player in the two previous movies. When his St. James Church burns to the ground in a suspected act of arson, a conflagration of different sorts rages up in town. The public university on whose land the church resides attempts to use the tragedy to keep it closed for good. Rev. Dave commits to fighting that effort even as growing public opinion questions whether a college campus is the proper location for a house of worship, and even if the church is a necessary part of such a diverse community.
The questions being asked, notes Ted McGinley, who plays Ellsworth, Hadleigh University’s dean and Rev. Dave’s close friend, are legitimate: “Does this church represent everyone on campus? Can this church be for everyone on campus? Are we allowed to put money into a church, because when you do you take away from other areas?”
However, the way those questions are being debated by most of the movie’s characters, including Rev. Dave, are part of the problem.
“Many of us are so protective about our own views…that we stop listening,” McGinley says. “The reality of this movie is that these are all people who may be right in their own groups. This movie is not about ‘the Christians’ versus ‘the villains.’ It’s about everyone. There are a whole bunch of people in this movie who aren’t incorrect. They’re just two different sides, and they’re not listening to each other.”
Into this contentious environment comes Pearce Hill, Rev. Dave’s brother, a big-city lawyer who drifted away from his family years earlier, when he drifted away from his Christian faith. The siblings’ reunion is rocky on multiple levels, but Dave has nowhere else to turn in his fight to rebuild his church.
“Pearce is reluctant to help, but Dave is his brother, so he decides to help,” says John Corbett. “But, there’s also something about returning home and breaking through those walls they put up after drifting apart. As it turns out, we find a greater love and understanding when we find a common denominator of leaning on each other. I come alongside my brother to conquer something that was insurmountable.”
That breakthrough, at the micro level, is what God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness hopes to be at the macro level.
“This film allows conversation to be OK,” White added. “It says, ‘Hey, let’s talk about this,’ instead of just beating you over the head with what I believe is right or what your parents believe is right or what your friends believe is right. Let’s just open up and talk about it.”
Jennifer Cipolla, who plays Sydney, one of the college students who brashly challenges the wisdom and relevance of having a church on her university’s campus, says the way in which the film encourages dialogue is “going to get audiences’ heads turning.”
“It’s not about trying to sway their ideas or make them think a different way, but just think in general,” she said. “And, most of all to come together. The idea of this movie isn’t you have to think one way or the other. The idea is that all of us can come together, and we can all have our different opinion – and that’s OK.”
“In our culture right now,” White noted, “there is a lot of fighting. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, left side, right side, nobody seems to be able to get along and there’s a lot of dissension. So, we wanted to shine a light on this, but in a God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness way: filled with hope and healing and forgiveness.”
Actor Shane Harper, who returns as Josh Wheaton, the role he popularized in the original movie, said, “My hope is that the overarching narrative of this story would bring light into people’s hearts – feelings of unity and compassion as opposed to anger and frustration. I want people to be encouraged that we’re in a time that we need the church to be the church and reach out and be loving and be gracious. This film is called A Light in the Darkness for a reason: There’s a lot of darkness in the world right now, and we need to focus on grace and compassion and unity rather than division.”
“The message of this movie is how do we as Christians, as individual believers, relate to others? How do we be a light in darkness?” White said. “The biggest thing I hope all believers will take away is that Jesus was about love. How do we relate to those in need? How do we encourage them? Uplift them? Care for them?
“Ultimately that’s what this film is about. I don’t think it’s exactly what people will expect. I think it’s more than what they will expect.”
God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness (PG) is suitable for teens through adults.
I also spoke to Ted McGinley and Shane Harper at the Los Angeles Premiere for God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness. Here is some of what they had to say:
SCH: In John 17 our Lord prays repeatedly that believers would be one in the Father and in His Son that the world would know that the Father has sent Him. He says that He has given believers the glory that the Father gave Him that believers may be one as the Father and the Son are one. In this movie, what aspects of God’s glory are shown in believers that enable them to be one in the Father and the Son that the world would know that the Father has sent His Son?
TM: We are imperfect people. God gives us space to be imperfect out of His grace. When we show His glorious grace to others we find unity that the world might know that the Father has sent the Son.
SCH: This movie picturizes the glory of God in sacrifice and in laying down personal ambitions for others. The movie shows God’s love model of free grace and His love transforming us in our weakness.
(Look for the entire interview with Ted McGinley and Shane Harper for God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness on Sonoma Christian Home.)
Paul, Apostle of Christ, now in theaters, also has the surprising theme of how to defeat evil with good with lack of retaliation and revenge. Although the acting is strong with Jim Caviezel (Passion of the Christ) as Luke and James Faulkner as Paul (Downton Abbey), the movie is somewhat slow, especially at the beginning. The dialects are varied and not especially believable. The theme of overcoming evil with good without revenge and retaliation is the strongest aspect of this inspirational movie that picturizes Christ’s love in His people even in the face of horrendous persecution.
Based on biblical scriptures and historical accounts, this movie picturizes the context of Paul’s last days in the Mamertine Prison in Rome where he has been imprisoned and horribly condemned to beheading. Luke comes to visit Paul and starts to write about the Book of Acts under Paul’s direction. Luke also brings some money to a hidden group of Roman Christians suffering under Nero’s persecution. It is not clear how the two storylines of the Roman Christians and Paul are connected until the end.
The movie begins in A.D. 67 in Rome at the time that Emperor Nero has blamed Christians for starting the fire in A.D. 64 that burned much of the city, although it is suspected that he is responsible for the fire. Nero has been killing Christians in the arena. He has also fed them to lions or wild dogs and used their bodies as human torches on the Roman streets.
Although Roman troops are looking for Christians to imprison and kill in A.D. 67, Luke, who has been Paul’s companion during his missionary trips, has secretly entered the city to visit Paul in prison and to bring money from the churches in Asia Minor to help a small community of Christians who are hiding from Nero’s fury.
Aquila and Priscilla (beautifully performed by Joanne Whalley of A.D. The Bible Continues) lead this group of hiding, persecuted Christians. Originally from Rome, Aquila and Priscilla had helped Paul to establish Corinthian and Ephesian churches. They returned to Rome with Paul to serve the Christian community there.
While Luke is visiting in Rome, he learns that Aquila, Priscilla and the Christian community is debating whether to stay in Rome or try to secretly leave. This debate is not resolved until the end of the movie.
Luke bribes a guard in the prison to talk with Paul and to pick up another letter for the Christians in Asia Minor or Rome.
Paul is still haunted by the brutal persecution he led against Christians before he converted, although he knows Christ has forgiven him. Together, Luke and Paul decide to write a book about Paul’s missionary work. When the prison warden finds out about the book, he also imprisons Luke.
When a Christian boy, serving as a messenger, is caught and brutally murdered by Roman soldiers, a young Roman Christian convert wants to lead a violent revolt and free Paul and Luke from prison. Priscilla and Aquila remind him and the Christian community that Jesus taught His apostles and disciples that love is the right Christian response to persecution.
Paul, Apostle of Christ (PG-13) is most suitable for teens and adults, due to Roman violence and the slower pace of the movie.
Many top family, redemptive movies continue in theaters emphasizing the value and need for Biblical virtues in our personal and corporate lives: kindness, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, and defeating evil with good that lacks retaliation and revenge, and more. For the Easter season, wonderful family, redemptive movies remain at the top of the box office with a these themes: I Can Only Imagine (PG) suitable for teens through adults, Black Panther (PG-13) for teens through adults, Peter Rabbit (PG) for all ages, The Greatest Showman (PG) for older children through adults, Ferdinand (PG) for all ages, and Samson (PG-13) for teens through adults.
I Can Only Imagine, came out in theaters its first weekend at the top of the box office, grossing $17 million in its opening weekend, with a per-screen average of $10,400. Because this movie had a production budget of $7 million, it had already had an amazing return.
In this gripping movie, Dennis Quaid displays a powerful range as an actor portraying Bart Millard’s father who undergoes a startling transformation. The inspiring and previously unknown true story behind MercyMe’s beloved, chart-topping song that brings ultimate hope to many is an important reminder of the power of true forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption.
In the movie, while chasing a dream and running away from broken relationships with his father and Shannon, his childhood sweetheart, Bart hits the road in an old, decrepit tour bus with his new band MercyMe, which was named for his grandmother’s favorite expression. With the guidance of a grizzled music-industry insider, the band begins a journey which none of them could ever have imagined. See my interview with director/writer Jon Erwin.
The initial box office success for I Can Only Imagine is significant. For consumers concerned about the content of media, and who want to make a difference in encouraging the production of good movies and other media, it is important to understand and exercise savvy consumer power for good. It is important to understand, for example, that much is at stake for good redemptive movies in their first weekend in theaters. The first weekend is highly significant for the success of the movie and its broadest impact worldwide for the eternal good of our world. Consumers who support good movies and media can make a difference. When they see the movies in a theater the first weekend, their consumer “vote” makes the strongest impact.
Unfortunately, movies that do not bring in significant revenue the first weekend are often dismissed as “disappointments,” “failures,” or “flops” at the box office. In recent decades, cinemas have been dropping movies after a poor opening weekend. To some extent the opening weekend can determine the future and fate of the movie.
In general, a movie has to make over 2.5 times its budget to be successful. A movie needs to make more than its global production and promotional budgets to make money and to secure funds for future movies. Movies are considered hits when they exceed both the films’ budgets and expectations. They are considered “disappointments,” “failures,” or “flops” when they don’t. By this measure and more, I Can Only Imagine is successful already.
Also addressing the theme of reconciliation, Black Panther further picturizes how to avoid, thwart and prevent evil through sharing and coordination of technology with good leaders. In the dangerous world in which we live, superhero movies with heroes of with good moral character, integrity, and self-sacrifice are popular partly because audiences want to see heroes who enable good to prevail over evil. This movie is rated PG-13, due to the violent struggles between good and evil. It is appropriate for middle schoolers-adults.
Black Panther is about Wakanda, an African nation, which has developed “vibranium,” an invaluable metal from a meteorite. Vibranium has helped Wakanda produce extremely advanced technology and civilization, which they have kept hidden from the world, as they pose as an impoverished country.
Wakanda struggles with the following universal questions and dilemmas: Should they share what they have with those in need? If they share, will they lose control of their resources? Will those with whom they might share use their technology for evil? Is the king’s highest loyalty and duty to his nation or to humanity? If Wakanda refuses to help those they can, how will it affect Wakanda? Can Wakanda use its power and technology for the good of all, as well as for their own country?
Where the earlier American Black Panther group used power for militancy, this latest Black Panther uses technology and power for the Good of All.
Another movie at the top of the box office this week that deals with resolving conflicts and finding reconciliation is Peter Rabbit. It is about the mischievous and adventurous Peter Rabbit, who leads his animal friends to battle against the McGregors. This movie is PG-rated and is appropriate for children through adults. This charming film is based on Beatrix Potter books and is full of delightful British humor.
Will Gluck, co-writer/director, says “When I was a kid, my dad read me the Peter Rabbit books, so I always had an emotional tie to him – and when I had kids, I read the books to them…The thing I love most is that Peter is a little mischief-maker. He’s depicted in a beautiful old-fashioned style, but …I thought it was a great opportunity to take that little nugget, what Beatrix Potter gave Peter, expand that personality trait and make it our own contemporary story.”
In the film, Peter’s battle with Old Mr. McGregor, keeper of the vegetable garden, takes a turn when the old man dies. When his great-nephew, Mr. Thomas McGregor inherits the place, Peter realizes that the struggle for control of the vegetable garden – and the heart of their next-door neighbor, Bea – has only just begun. To help, Peter is enlisting his family and friends – sisters Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, cousin Benjamin Bunny, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mr. Jeremy Fisher, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, and other characters author and illustrator Beatrix Potter created in her original tales.
For the animation, Gluck and fellow producer Zareh Nalbandian partnered with Nalbandian’s Animation and VFX studio Animal Logic, whose previous credits include The LEGO® Movie, Happy Feet, and other films, for a film that would combine animation with live action. “We wanted to use as many of the Beatrix Potter characters as possible to honor what she created,” continues Gluck. “We’re all familiar with the beautiful watercolor paintings – if they were to come to life in the real world, we hope this is what they would look like.” This live-action movie is a delightful animation marvel.
The look of the film was only one part of maintaining the integrity of the characters – just as important was ensuring that Peter behaved as Peter – a character who takes risks and enjoys a good prank, but one whose good heart shines through.
“Peter is told not to go into McGregor’s garden because his father was put into a pie for going into the garden. What does he do? He goes into the garden. That’s who Peter is – there’s nothing more you can tell someone who’s like that,” Gluck explains. “He has that impishness, but also a bold confidence and a self-delusion that he’s always right, when he’s actually often wrong. He’s never in doubt, though, so he keeps charging forward until he realizes he’s gone too far.”
But even as Peter faces reality when daring bullheadedness goes too far, his true character emerges. “He comes to realize that he has to take care of his cousin and his three sisters, and although he wouldn’t admit it to himself, he realizes that there might be shades to Thomas McGregor,” Gluck continues. “Peter is an adolescent who starts to appreciate that things aren’t always black and white.”
Protecting these elements of Peter’s character was extremely important to the filmmakers, as they worked closely with the guardians of the Beatrix Potter legacy, the publishers at Frederick Warne & Co., Ltd., a division of Penguin Random House, which has published Beatrix Potter’s Original Peter Rabbit Books™ since 1902.
Susan Bolsover, director of licensing and consumer products for Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd, says that the Peter Rabbit movie will connect with 2018 audiences in a similar way that the book did for readers in 1902 because the themes of adventure and mischief are timeless. “I think Beatrix Potter was able to reach so many people with The Tale of Peter Rabbit because it’s a funny, timeless story that captures children’s imaginations,” she adds. “Beatrix understood the importance of talking to children on their own level and created a story, set in the natural world that all children would recognize with themes that would be universally appealing.”
Peter eventually teaches his animal friends to find healing coexistence with their human friends and his readers to find the same with each other.
Another top pick movie that has continued in theaters into March with the theme of healing conflict and finding reconciliation among diverse characters is the spectacular musical, The Greatest Showman. Love, kindness, and unconditional love are also dominant themes in The Greatest Showman. This original musical is inspired by the imagination of P.T. Barnum.
This charming movie tells the story of the visionary, P.T. Barnum, who rose from nothing to create a spectacle that became a worldwide sensation. P.T. Barnum played by Hugh Jackman, founder of the three-ring circus, started with nothing; but he envisions a grand spectacle of theater, acrobatics, and amusement.
Academy Award® nominee Hugh Jackman especially likes “…the idea that your talent, your imagination and your ability to work hard should be the only things that determine your success. He (PT Barnum) knew how to make something out of nothing, how to turn lemons into lemonade. I’ve always loved that quality. He followed his own path, and turned any setback he had into a positive. So many things I aspire to in my life are embodied in this one character.”
Australian director Michael Gracey says “…The Greatest Showman also touches on another idea of these times…families built around allowing people to express who they are without reservation… A big idea in the film is that your real wealth is the people that you surround yourself with and the people who love you…Barnum pulled people together who the world might otherwise have ignored. And by bringing each of these people into the light, he created a family who were always going to be there for each other. In the course of the film, Barnum almost loses both his real family and his circus family – but then you watch him discover that the most important thing he can do is bring them both back together again… Barnum’s story is about not limiting your imagination, about using what’s in your head to create new worlds….”
Gracey also focuses on the Oddities, the circus performers with uncommon physical conditions. Displays of such individuals as freaks is not acceptable today and Gracey sees another side of what Barnum’s performers experienced – the opportunity to escape hidden, marginal lives; the chance to inspire admiration and feel pride; and most of all the ability to provoke questions into just how narrowly we define “normal.” (Margot Robbie), Benjamin, Bea (Rose Byrne), Peter Rabbit (James Corden) and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley) in Columbia Pictures’ PETER RABBIT.
“The Oddities are people who are invisible to society so they’ve been kept behind closed doors,” explains Gracey. “And what our P.T. Barnum does is give these invisible people a spotlight and a chance to feel love for the first time. He tells wondrous stories in which they are not damaged but special. I think audiences will love the Oddities because at the end of the day, everyone’s an Oddity.” He emphasizes, “There’s a line where Barnum says, ‘No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.’ That to me is the heart of the film.”
For Gracey, everything hinged on getting the music for this movie right. He determined that the songs could counterpoint the period setting – rather than going back in time, he wanted songs that would make the characters and dilemmas urgently of-the-moment. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul known for Oscar®-winning work on La La Land brilliantly provided this and more. Gracey said, “What Benj and Justin songs they wrote are always taking you somewhere – each is a narrative in its own right.”
Tony Award winner and Academy Award® nominee Hugh Jackman brings his commitment to family to this movie. Producer Laurence Mark says, “I think this is the first movie in which Hugh has actually played a family man and calls upon that part of himself… He makes it very much a story about a man who loses and then rediscovers his family – both his home family and his circus family who together mean everything in the world to him.”
Jackman also says, “What I like most is that at its heart, this is a film about taking risks, following your dreams and celebrating what makes each and every one of us unique…Barnum filled his show with the most talented but overlooked people he knew and gave them a magnificent spotlight in which to shine – and that’s the story we’ve decided to tell….Barnum broke walls down and I think what he represents to us now is this idea that you can be whoever you are, you can choose the life you want regardless of class or race or background.
If you work hard and use your imagination, you can do something amazing. I think Barnum was a little bit of an Oddity himself, growing up. He believed that what makes you different makes you special. That resonates with me in a huge way — and I think everybody can relate to it, particularly young kids. That’s why I’m thrilled that the theme of this movie is that it is empowering and cool just to be you….as the father of two teenagers, I talk to them constantly about the idea that no matter who you are, no matter how you differ from supermodels and football players, it’s irrelevant. Love yourself exactly the way you were born.”
Jackman’s song “From Now On,” is about seeking redemption. “That song is about Barnum coming to terms with …mistakes he’s made…” says music writer Justin Paul. “It begins in a hush and build and builds until the moment where he has to rush down the street trying to win his family back.”
The music, choreography, and production elements of this spectacular musical movie creatively and freshly communicate the central themes through the skillful performances of top performers. As with the songs for The Greatest Showman, the design aesthetic blends vintage and new – hurtling the 19th century of P.T. Barnum into the future of today. Along with a team of dedicated artisans – including cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, production designer Nathan Crowley and costume designer Ellen Mirojnick – Michael Gracey establishes a look that is not grounded in any specific era. It is grounded in the power of the imagination of every era, bridging the gap between Barnum’s times and our own.
The movie culminates with the film’s climactic reprise of The Greatest Show. Choreographer Asley Wallen says, “We left our biggest dance for the end…It’s just a huge number that incorporates all the circus acts, all the dancers, all the Oddities, the…animals and so much more. It’s created to be a big, astounding, celebratory final note.”
Producer Laurence Mark says: “We all hope to have created a feast for the eyes, for the ears and for the heart. The old Barnum & Bailey circus’s time has come and gone, but what lives on as the legacy of Barnum is that desire to spark joy and imagination, and that’s the tradition we hope to have honored.”
Further, Ferdinand is another top pick family movie that continues in theaters with charm, heart, and healing solutions to conflict. It is about a bull who doesn’t bully. This movie, like The Greatest Showman, also has the theme of the value of each individual. Ferdinand is a CG-animated adaptation of the classic 1936 book by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson.
The movie begins in Casa del Toros, a bull training camp in rural Spain from which young Ferdinand bolts upon learning his dad never returned from a trip to that Madrid arena. He finds idyllic refuge on a farm belonging to Juan whose daughter Nina makes a pet out of Ferdinand. But when the docile creature grows to an enormous, threatening size, he is seized by the authorities and delivered back to Casa del Toros.
Ferdinand plans an escape with the help of a team of misfits who, like Ferdinand, defy stereotypes. The movie is a heartwarming, comedic adventure for all ages. Moments of comic entertainment include a literal “bull in a china shop” scene. However, the characters also gracefully inhabit bright green rolling hills against azure skies. Ferdinand is an heroic, selfless, non-violent, courageous character who is concerned about the well-being of others.
Also, the new movie Samson continuing in theaters is another top pick. It is based on the epic Biblical tale of a man blessed with super human strength and chosen by God to deliver Israel from their arch enemies — the Philistines. But when lust, greed and pride cause him to abandon his oath to God, Samson’s life takes an epic fall from grace. After being betrayed by an evil prince and an exotic temptress, the once invincible Samson is captured, blinded, and humiliated beyond despair.
But the story does not end there. As in all generations, we get to see how God uses flawed people and leaders for His divine purposes. In the beautiful redemptive story, we see how God uses imprisonment and blindness to ultimately win the spiritual victory over pride, greed and a wicked world. The historical story of Samson is recorded in the Bible in Judges 13-16 in the Bible, before the reign of King David. See my interview for the movie Samson on Sonoma Christian Home. In this story and movie, God enables Good to prevail over evil even through flawed people.
Uniquely, each week Sonoma Christian Home not only provides valuable reviews and substantive interviews for worthwhile family movies, but it also publishes the top picks in movies in theaters for all ages that are not only entertaining; but they are redemptive, of good quality, and inspirational.
The top pick movies for the third week of March include the following: God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness (PG) suitable for teens through adults, Paul, Apostle of Christ (PG-13) appropriate for teens through adults, I Can Only Imagine (PG) suitable for teens through adults, Black Panther (PG-13) for teens through adults, Peter Rabbit (PG) for all ages, The Greatest Showman (PG) for older children through adults, Ferdinand (PG) for all ages, and Samson (PG-13) for teens through adults.
Although theater release dates can change, here is what is known about what and when some of the most promising redemptive and family movies are due in theaters this year: Pandas, 4/6; The Miracle Season, 4/13; The Dating Project, 4/17; Fragments of Truth, 4/24; Lego Movie, Sequel, 5/18; Incredibles 2, 6/15; Christopher Robin, 8/3; Unbroken, Path to Redemption, 10/5; The Jungle Book, Origins, 10/19; Mulan, 11/2; The Grinch, 11/9; The Nutcracker and The Four Realms, 11/2; Wreck-It-Ralph, 11/21; Mary Poppins Returns, 12/21 and more.
Other promising redemptive and family movies with release dates to be announced include: Heavenquest: A Pilgrim’s Progress; Indivisible; Run the Race; The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair; Peter Pan; The Little Mermaid and many more. Watch for interviews and insightful stories for these movies on Sonoma Christian Home.
Please continue to search for and support the best movies for your friends and families. The best is yet come as long we continue to support the ongoing reformation in content and renaissance in artistry in media and movies.
As audiences continue to see good family and redemptive movies in theaters, keeping them at the top of the box office, more good movies like them will be made. Watch for many top picks this year of redemptive, Biblical and faith-based movies that continue to improve in the ongoing renaissance of artistry and reformation of content in movies. Remember that consumers can facilitate the success and wide global distribution of good redemptive movies. Remember that a movie’s success opening weekend is important.
To learn more about this author, please visit Dr. Diane Howard