Although the holiday hardly holds the same mainstream appeal as others – especially Christmas – Easter movies are still surprisingly prevalent in the cinematic landscape. Between overt and implicit adaptations of the Jesus story, Passover stories and more mainstream depictions of the Easter Bunny, there’s more to choose from than you might at first think. So if you find yourself in need of some timely entertainment around this time of year in the future, check out some of these excellent, Easter-themed movies.
5) Godspell – Although far preachier than most of the other options mentioned here, Godspell – an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name – is probably the most palatable sermon that you’re likely to ever run into. This is assisted by setting its narrative in modern-day New York and dressing Jesus and his disciples as color-blind hippies. Seriously, Jesus wears a Superman shirt, a pair of garishly striped clown-pants and some red suspenders.
The problem that I always took with crucifixion stories was how uniformly condemnatory they were of Judas. Sure, as the villain of the piece, he’s an easy target, but there’s so much more to him than a moustache-twirling conspirator with a wicked laugh. He’s a deeply tragic figure whose ultimate opposition to Jesus is born of well-intentioned principles. When most takes on the crucifixion are told with less nuance than Marvel’s Civil War, you know that there’s an issue.
Not so with Godspell, however. Judas is given his due as a character: increasingly frustrated with the direction of Jesus’ nascent congregation and wanting actionable, if tragically unreasonable, changes to be made to the world. This is highlighted in the most singularly memorable scene of the movie: an up-tempo duet between Judas and Jesus atop the World Trade Center. Jesus reminds his followers that those who suffer in life will be rewarded in Heaven, while Judas bemoans racially-aligned wealth disparity. In their own way, both conclude that “it’s all for the best.”
4) The Prince of Egypt – While most cinephiles prefer Cecile B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments as their Exodus story of choice, I’ve always found Dreamwork’s The Prince of Egypt to be a far more rewarding experience. Live action adaptations of Moses’ flight from Egypt have always been plagued by the technical issue of presenting the plagues: staunchly limited by the technology of their time. An animated movie – which can render any conceivable effect with a simple brush stroke – inherently doesn’t suffer from this. The plague’s are spectacularly illustrated and the Jews’ flight from Egypt the perfect mix of marvel and mysticism.
You would think that any version of this story would inherently focus on the plagues. After all, it’s the Bible’s moneyshot: the attention-grabbing, action-packed and altogether horrifying climax that everybody’s come to see. Both the 20’s and the 50’s version of The Ten Commandments exploited the Hell out of those sequences, and it’s pretty clear by now that Exodus: Gods and Kings only made it to theaters because of what moder-day CG could do with those scenes.
The Prince of Egypt, however, sticks with the narrative core of the story, rather than its window dressings. With the exception of the first and final plagues, they’re relegated to a 2 1/2 minute montage, allowing the film to focus on its primary “brother-against-brother” story line. It’s amazing how emotional everything gets when spectacle takes a back seat to substantive writing and meaningful direction.
3) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – This is probably the biggest head-scratcher on the list. The adaptation of Ken Kesey’s keystone novel isn’t a religious story by any means. It neither deals directly with Jesus’ crucifixion nor the Jewish exodus. It doesn’t even feature an Easter Bunny 2+ hour run time.
But while it is textually a condemnation of the US mental healthcare system’s dehumanizing, contradictory and ultimately inhuman treatment of those in its care, there is a Christian subtext to the willfully oppositional McMurphy. The thing with Jesus standins in film and literature is that the best ones are the ones that most visibly “wrong.” Sure, you can dress your version of Jesus up in a Superman shirt and have him spouting gospel, but the ones that matter – the ones that really get under your skin and make you think – are the ones that rub you all sorts of the wrong way.
McMurphy is a crook that conned the courts into giving him what he considers to be a light sentence. He’s a tattooed, foul-mouthed gambler who purposefully riles up the other patients and gets into a pissing contest with the head nurse. But that doesn’t change the fact that he was lobotomized for our sins, nor that he showed his fellow inmates how they should treat one another and gave them back more than just a mere measure of their own humanity. If you go into the movie (or novel) with that mindset, you might walk away with an altogether different take on the familiar story.
2) Jesus Christ Superstar – There’s a lot to be said about the similarities between this and Godspell. Both are decidedly modern retellings of the crucifixion. Both feature highly non-traditional direction (either a non-Biblical setting, non-period costumes or color-blind casting). Both, also, are musicals that render biblical confllict into catchy showtunes.
Despite the uncomfortable implications of having a black Judas in the latter days of the Civil Rights Movement, Jesus Christ Superstar probably delivers us the most iconic portrayal of the character outside of the Bible itself. Like Godspell, he is a man: highly conflicted about both the direction of Jesus’ flock and of what his pending betrayal of the man. While Godspell was more interested in contrasting the two’s viewpoints (“All for the Best”), Andrew Llloyd Weber’s musical focusing more intently on Judas’ point of view (“Heaven on their Mind”): noting Jesus’ hypocrisies toward tending to the poor.
And because there’s the inherent meta-text of the movie showing a production of the play, things get pretty wonky. The movie doesn’t open with the characters cut from whole cloth, but as actors setting up for a production. When Jesus throws out the money-lenders from the temple, he upturns tables full of machine guns and rocket launchers. When the soldiers move into view, they do so with tanks and heavy artillary. But like One Flew Over the Cuckoo‘s Nest, there’s more meaning to be found in the disparity of these images than their is in potential congruity.
1) Rise of the Guardians – I don’t know what I was expecting from this movie, but “childhood holiday icons by way of the Avengers” was not it. And yet there it was: an exciting, action-packed an surprisingly emotional story about the guardians of childhood protecting children the world over from the monsters that lurk in the dark. More than that, each Guardian is responsible for protecting a certain aspect of childhood, such as Wonder (Santa), Fun (Jack Frost), Memories (Tooth Fairy) and Dreams (Sandman).
The Easter Bunny guards perhaps the most important feature of childhood: Hope. Spring is the promise of winter: the return of light and warmth to a world shrouded in cold and darkness. It means new beginnings and fresh starts.
Rise of the Guardians isn’t just technically an Easter movie: it is entirely an Easter movie. Pitch Black (the boogeyman) attacks in the days leading up to the holiday: both literally and thematically attacking the hope of the world’s children. The turning point of the story is when the Guardians fail to save Easter from him: devastating their fragile union when they sink into hopeless despair at the prospect of saving the day. While Godspell and the rest understand the socio-religious importance of the holiday, only Rise of the Guardians understands the spirited core of the season.