In his novel The Final Beast, Frederick Buechner writes, “The worst isn't the last thing about the world. It's the next to the last thing. The last thing is the best. It's the power from on high that comes down into the world, that wells up from the rock-bottom worst of the world like a hidden spring.” This is a great emotional encapsulation of the Easter story. On Good Friday, we experience the worst, but on Easter, we celebrate in the knowledge that it wasn’t the end—and that the best part of the story has finally come.
Buechner’s words are particularly resonant right now, when concerns due to COVID-19 will keep us from fully celebrating Easter in community. This is a time to look for hope in stories of a love that prevails in the face of darkness, stories that challenge us to look beyond what we think is certain. Here are five movies, available to watch online, that reflect those Easter themes.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
The resurrection of Jesus is about the victory of life over death and the triumph of God’s creativity over earthly reality. These ideas also pervade The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a 1988 fantasy adventure that celebrates the power of optimistic imagination to overcome the bounds of logic.
Baron Munchausen begins in a besieged city that’s under attack from an invading army. In the middle of the battle, a theater troupe is performing a play about the adventures of a fictional character, Baron Munchausen. They’re interrupted by an old soldier (John Neville) who says he’s the actual Munchausen and claims he’s the only one who can defeat the enemy at the gate. Accompanied by a plucky child, Sally (Sarah Polley), Munchausen sets off in a whimsical homemade airship—the balloon is made of women’s stockings—on an epic adventure to save the city.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen culminates in a death and resurrection that proves the Baron’s incredible stories to be true, and gives him triumphant victory over mortality. After being shot, the Baron’s soul is taken by a skeletal angel of death, followed by a dreamlike, baroque funeral scene, and then the sudden revelation that the whole thing may have been staged. The Baron (very much alive) and his friends throw open the city gates as the music swells heroically and it’s revealed all is well. It’s a moment that echoes the celebration of Easter, when God joyfully defies what looks at first like grim finality. What should be the end—by logical standards—isn’t. The truth, it turns out, is far more wonderful.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Alongside The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis’ classic fantasy is perhaps the most direct gospel allegory in mainstream literature. The story of the Pevensie children’s adventures in Narnia and the death and resurrection of the lion Aslan, in order to save their brother Edmund, is a direct retelling of the Easter narrative.
There are a few adaptations of Lewis’ novel you could choose to watch for Easter. The sacrifice and resurrection depicted in the 2005 live-action Disney version does a good job of capturing the upsetting, genuinely frightening nature of Aslan’s death, as well as the joy of Aslan’s return and victory over the White Queen (a savage Tilda Swinton).
Aslan’s death at the Stone Table feels primal and hellish, lit by fire and attended by creatures that look like they escaped a Heironymus Bosch painting. Aslan’s return is almost blindingly backlit after the table—the symbol of his death—is cracked down the center. The movie invests deeply in the wonder of its magical elements, frightening and fantastic alike, in a way that complements the dark and light balance of the biblical account.
This is a time to look for hope in stories of a love that prevails in the face of darkness.
Easter is mainly about the victory of the resurrected Jesus, but there’s also a sense of the story to come: Christ’s preparation of his disciples for their ministry and his ascension. Midnight Special occupies this space, exploring the transformational experience of belief and reflecting the feelings present after Christ’s departure.
The movie’s Christ figure is supernaturally gifted Alton Meyer (Jaeden Martell), a child who’s pursued by several imposing forces. The doomsday cult he’s escaped from thinks he’s their messiah. The government thinks he’s a weapon. Alton knows his destiny is different. He has visions of a world “built on top of ours,” where he can finally learn what he is.
For Alton to get there, he needs help from his dad, Roy (Michael Shannon); his mom, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst); and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a family friend. These characters function as disciples, fully trusting in Alton’s direction, no matter the cost. Their understanding is limited, but their love for the boy moves them forward. Lucas, a relative outsider, is the clearest illustration of blind faith, knowing little about Alton but seemingly always in awe of him.
When Alton finally fulfills his purpose, the thin veil between his world and ours is momentarily lifted. We see a fantastic, glittering city descend from the clouds and last for a moment before it disappears, taking Alton along with it. But the movie doesn’t stop there. The story continues to follow Roy, Sarah, and Lucas as they process their experience. Like the apostles, they’ve seen a glimpse of a world beyond theirs, and are left asking, “What now?” Midnight Special doesn’t have a response, but instead follows its characters right up to the edge of an answer.
The Iron Giant
The Easter story is a response to the reality that sin had separated humanity from God. God didn’t have to sacrifice his son, but chose to because he loved us. Many times throughout the gospel, Christ was let down by the very people he came to help. Yet rather than condemn, he experienced death in order to impart salvation, out of love for even the most sinful among us.
The 1999 animated film The Iron Giant gives us a 100-foot-tall incarnation of that same kind of sacrificial love. The title character, a massive robot who falls to Earth and befriends a child, doesn’t have to be good. Beyond Hogarth, the little boy who loves him, The Giant is given more reasons to fear humanity than care for us, given that he lands in the midst of Cold War paranoia and atomic-age weapons obsession. But even though he could wipe the town he lands in off the map, The Giant chooses to save it when the need arises—to be an instrument of goodness, not destruction.
Like Easter, The Iron Giant ends on a triumphant note of resurrection. After sacrificing himself in order to intercept a nuclear missile, The Giant—who had been blown to bits—begins to reassemble. His final, friendly grin reassures young Hogarth, and us, that death isn’t the end.
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
Midway through this sequel to The Lego Movie, the characters are in a dark place of their own making. Our returning heroes—Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks), Emmet (Chris Pratt), Lego Batman (Will Arnett), and their friends—have been fighting with a new set of characters who initially seemed destructive, but may just want to be friends. The two sides’ refusal to get along manifests the great fear they all share: the toys are put away in storage.
In their darkest hour, the characters sing a grim reprise of “Everything is Awesome,” the song from the first film. This time, they’ve learned “everything’s not awesome.” Fortunately, to echo Buechner, the worst thing isn’t the last. As they’re singing, the characters realize they can keep hope alive by selflessly working together. By choosing to open their hearts and ask for forgiveness, the characters are able to save each other and escape from the dark storage bin.
Holy Week, especially for children, can be a volatile experience. We’re taught that God is all-powerful, but if that’s true, how could something as awful as the crucifixion happen? We have to learn that even when things look their worst, it isn’t the end of the story. Good Friday tells us that everything can’t be awesome all the time, because that’s not how the world works. Easter teaches that if we remember to love as Jesus loved, life’s dark moments can be followed by joyful redemption.