Continuing the recent trend of faith-based films, including "Noah" and "Son of God," "Heaven Is for Real" is a sweet tale based on a 4-year-old boy's account of his trip to heaven that's likely to please the devout, but won't entice religious cynics.
There's little doubt the T.D. Jakes-produced adaptation of Todd Burpo's Christian non-fiction best-seller will have a built-in audience.
After undergoing harrowing surgery for a ruptured appendix, young Colton Burpo (Connor Corum) begins recalling his journey for his family: Angels carried him to heaven where he met Jesus (played by Mike Mohrhardt, whose face we never quite see), as well as God, Colton's great-grandfather and the miscarried sister he never knew he had.
Such talk frightens his older sister (Lane Styles) and worries his pastor father, Todd (Greg Kinnear), and mother, Sonja (Kelly Reilly).
As Colton becomes more verbal about his supposed encounter, the local paper in the small Nebraska town starts reporting the story. This leads some members of Todd's congregation (Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale) to turn against the Burpo family.
Though Todd sticks up for his son, his faith is also tested. "We ask these kids to believe this stuff," he says to his wife, "but I don't even know if I believe it myself."
But Todd is captivated, as we are, by his son's innocence, especially when Colton tells him things he couldn't possibly know, such as how he saw his parents cope, each in their own way, during his near-fatal surgery.
As Colton, Corum does an excellent job of speaking softly, yet with conviction, and holding his gaze so we have time to study his sparkling blue eyes. But it's the casting of Kinnear that offers the film's strongest chance at transcending the faith-based demographic, as the actor never fails to embody the everyman.
Kinnear's Todd is not just an inaccessible preacher. He's also a volunteer firefighter, coaches high school wrestling and is a garage door repairman. His family is also in debt. Their house, which was offered as "part of his salary," sits near railroad tracks and shakes with every passing train. Thus, many of the Burpo family's struggles mirror those of others in the heartland, and effectively so.
But in the way of gripping dialogue, Kinnear doesn't have much to work with. We might have expected more from writer-director Randall Wallace, who brought us the Oscar-nominated "Braveheart." But the material is pretty cookie-cutter and more typical of an afterschool special. However, Wallace and co-writer Chris Parker do a good job of weaving in moments that should appeal to a mass audience.
Just when it seems we're being subjected to too much of "the Word," Colton cutely diverts our attention. During a road trip, he suggests the family sing "We Will Rock You" instead of a hymn. Kinnear and Reilly's chemistry also offers a favorable element. They appear genuinely sweet on each other and subtle sexual innuendoes add a bit of adult flavor.
With the impressive computer-generated effects available today, this film could have used a more sophisticated depiction of heaven. OK, so it's hard to imagine what heaven would look like, but this version looks far too generic, awash with glaring light and blurred angels.
It's no surprise that faith, hope and family prevail in this one. After all, says Todd in one of his sermons, "In the end, it's about not feeling alone."