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As cinematic sermons go, “Heaven Is For Real” is slicker than most. Unlike the vast majority of so-called faith-based films, the adaptation of the book by Todd Burpo, pastor of a Wesleyan church in a small Nebraska town, that recounts his four-year old son’s vision of heaven during a near-death experience, the picture had a substantial budget, boasts a cast of name—if not top-tier—actors (Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale) and was helmed by a reputable studio director (Randall Wallace, who made “We Were Soldiers” and “Seabiscuit,” along with the unfortunate remake of “The Alamo”, and shot—quite beautifully—by able cinematographer Dean Semler in lush widescreen visuals. But it’s still a sermon.

Kinnear plays Burpo, who barely makes ends meet by working carpentry jobs to supplement his ministry salary (while also moonlighting as a volunteer fireman and a high school wrestling coach). He’s well liked by his growing congregation, including board stalwarts Nancy Rawling (Martindale) and Jay Wilkins (Church), and has the perfect family in wife Sonja (Reilly) and cherubic kids Cassie (Lane Styles) and Colton (Connor Corum). Life may be tough, but it’s good.

Or at least it was before Todd suffers a few setbacks, including a broken leg and a bad bout of kidney stones. Those seem like minor problems, however, after the kids return ill from a family trip to Denver and while his sister’s condition improves, little Colton takes a turn for the worse. It turns out he has a ruptured appendix, and it’s only emergency surgery—as well as prayers from the congregation—that pull him through. Once restored to health, though, the boy drops occasional remarks about an out-of-body experience he had during the operation, in which he visited heaven. He describes it as peopled by singing angels and an extremely friendly Jesus, who rides a rainbow-colored horse and plopped the lad onto his lap. Later on he’ll mention that he was greeted there by a couple of spirits he didn’t know—his dad’s grandfather and a young girl who identified herself as his other sister, the one who died in a miscarriage that he never knew about.

The persuasiveness of Colton’s recollections creates a crisis of faith for Todd (why is not entirely clear) that might remind viewers of a certain age of the “Mr. McBeevee” episode of the old Andy Griffith show: should he believe his son, or try to explain things away rationally? It also causes a rift within the church when the pastor embraces the boy’s account as true, something that some of the congregants—in particular the skeptical Nancy—consider an embarrassment. It also causes the Burpo family some difficulty with the larger community—not just the taunting kids at Cassie’s school but Todd’s pals at the firehouse—when the local newspaper and radio station play up the story. Not to worry, though: Todd will smooth everything over with a stirring homily (as well as the book, of course, though it goes unmentioned).

Believers will embrace “Heaven is For Real,” happily enjoying the opportunity to say “I told you so” to doubting Thomases as bits and pieces of Colton’s story emerge that apparently confirm the reality of his experience. Non-believers, on the other hand, will dismiss the whole account as a fantasy—maybe an innocent one dreamed up by a child, but perhaps one intentionally fabricated by his father to sell books.

One doesn’t need to come down one way or the other, however, to conclude that while the film is unquestionably sincere, it’s also pretty heavy-handed, even when it tries not to be (as in the portrayal of Nancy, to whom Martindale brings her customary depth). The depiction of little Colton’s vision smacks of the worst examples of preciousness found on Hallmark cards, and having the fellow who plays Jesus (Mark Mohrhardt) appear only from the rear, “Ben-Hur” style, is a cutesy trick used only to allow for another “a-ha!” moment at the very end. Burpo’s big concluding sermon is overdrawn, too, with all the shots of congregants tearing up, nodding in agreement, and coming together in what amounts to a group hug afterward.

Still, the film is bolstered by Kinnear’s earnest performance, by solid support from Church and Reilly as well as Martindale, and by the turn from little Corum, who isn’t exactly natural but whose full-cheeked little face certainly possesses the needed angelic look.

“Heaven Is For Real” is thus both innovative and familiar. It breaks the ‘faith-based’ mold in terms of production quality, but in the end succumbs to the usual pattern of playing to the faithful rather than genuinely leaving the issues it raises in doubt.


The success of 2011’s“Rio,” Blu-Sky Animation’s warm-weather alternative to its “Ice Age” franchise, has led to an inevitable sequel, which inevitably proves inferior to its mediocre predecessor. “Rio 2” simply tries too hard; overly busy and uncomfortably noisy, it tries one’s patience, though the animation is colorful and kids might enjoy it.

The movie begins with a big festival in the titular city, where Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway), thought to be the last blue macaws in existence, have settled as a happy couple with three rambunctious chicks. To be sure, Blu is still addicted to the modern conveniences he learned to appreciate during his stay as a Minnesota pet, while wifey prefers natural things; but as a pair they still bill and coo. Meanwhile their pals, the toucan Rafael (George Lopez), cardinal Pedro (will.i.am) and canary Nico (Jamie Foxx), are auditioning acts for an upcoming show, while bulldog Luiz (Tracy Morgan) enjoys the festivities.

Important things are happening out in the rainforest, however. There Blu’s erstwhile owner Linda (Leslie Mann) and her bumbling explorer husband Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro)—who, like Blu and Jewel, found one another in the earlier movie—locate what seems to be a previously undiscovered flock of blue macaws. Jewel, a reluctant Blu and their offspring are soon trekking into the wilderness to find their potential relatives, with Rafael, Pedro and Nico not far behind.

The big discovery is that the flock turns out to be headed by Jewel’s rigid father Eduardo (Andy Garcia), who finds Blu an inept embarrassment ruined by life with humans. To make matters worse, it also includes Jewel’s childhood pal Roberto (Bruno Mars), whom Blu immediately sees as a rival for his wife’s affections. That encourages him to want to return to civilization as soon as possible, while Jewel and the chicks prefer to stay in the unspoiled paradise.

Around this domestic sitcom, the four credited screenwriters assemble a host of subplots. The grove where the macaws live is split between the blue flock and a red one (is this meant as a commentary on present-day U.S. political divisions?), and ultimately a game of something like an avian version of quidditch—in which Blue does not excel—determines which will be in control. Pedro and Nico begin auditioning the local wildlife for their upcoming show, allowing for lots of sight gags and musical numbers. The nasty cockatoo Nigel (Jermaine Clement) from “Rio” shows up with a loving frog sidekick named Gabi (Kristin Chenoweth) in pursuit of Blu. And Linda and Tulio fall into the hands of evil loggers who threaten the very existence of the untouched macaw habitat. Guess who proves his mettle by becoming its rescuer?

All of these script strands jostle and vie with one another for attention, leading an untidy tangle of messages about family, the environment, and the glories of nature, and to add to the mix there are a slew of musical numbers. Most are background pieces for montages, but Mars’ Roberto breaks out into song on a couple of occasions and Hathaway’s Jewel is assigned a tune of her own. One can probably heave a sigh of relief that neither Eisenberg’s Blu nor Garcia’s Eduardo is assigned a solo, but the duet between Clement’s Nigel and Chenoweth’s Gabi is almost inspired—something that could never be alleged against the other numbers, which seem at first hearing to be innocuous but instantly forgettable.

On the visual side, “Rio 2” is a virtual riot of color and motion, beginning with a fireworks display bursting over the titular city’s mountaintop Christ statue and continuing into the Amazon sequences, some of which mimic the look of old Busby Berkeley routines while others feature slapstick gags old enough to have been vaudeville standards. At times, it has to be said, the eye-popping images are a trifle fatiguing especially with the addition of 3D to the mix.

In sum, this is a movie that goes all out to dazzle—as the upcoming Rio Olympics are bound to do. Let’s hope that the games will be more successful at dazzling us than it is.