Popcorn and Inspiraton: ‘Heaven Is for Real’: Daring, Disarming, Dogma-Challenging

November 13, 2020 Updated: November 13, 2020

PG | | Biography, Drama, Family | 16 April 2014 (USA)

America’s best products are movies and music. So what’s the deal with Christian movies? While they unfailingly have the best of intentions, they tend to share an overly saccharine sweetness. But is it that they’re actually too sweet, or that today’s society has become too sophisticated and jaded? The latter, of course. “Heaven Is for Real” falls solidly in the saccharine category; however, the story itself is quite interesting. It’s also true.

small boy and Jesus in a movie theater in "Heaven is for Real"
Colton Burpo (Connor Corum, L) walks with Jesus, in “Heaven Is for Real.” (TriStar Pictures)

The Pastor and His Son

Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is an Iowan pastor, volunteer fireman, wrestling coach, and business owner. He’s a do-gooder of extreme do-goodness. He keeps it real; his fracturing an ankle sliding into home at the local softball game is the type of experience that immediately goes into his small-town Sunday sermon.

man in sunglasses shakes hands with woman in "Heaven is for Real"
Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear, L) glad-handing in a small town where he’s the local pastor, in “Heaven Is for Real.” (TriStar Pictures)

When his wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly), insists that it’s time for a vacation, the family sets out for Denver, shouting “We Will Rock You!” in the car.

Todd’s 4-year-old son, Colton (Connor Corum), ruptures his appendix and gets an MRI. It’s bad. Pastor Todd goes to the hospital chapel and throws chairs around, hollering heavenward, “Don’t you take my son!”

Meanwhile, back home, word gets around. The entire community becomes engrossed in prayers for the pastor’s son. Colton lives.

man and woman with child in hospital bed in "Heaven is for Real"
(L–R) Sonja Burpo (Kelly Reilly), Colton Burpo (Connor Corum), and Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), in “Heaven Is for Real.” (TriStar Pictures)

Back to life as usual? Not really. The boy is starting to say some very interesting things. When they go to the Denver petting zoo to hold Rosie the tarantula, Colton says, “I’ve been here before.” He also says, “The angels sang to me.” When Todd asks when they did that, Colton replies, “When you were in the other room, yelling at God.”

Colton says he met Jesus and explains that Jesus has a multicolored horse. Jesus has “markers” too, he says, pointing at both hands and feet. Well, if pastor Todd is going to talk about his busted ankle in church, he’s most definitely going to tell his flock about his son’s revelation that Jesus owns a multicolored horse.

boy and man have a talk in "Heaven is for Real"
Colton Burpo (Connor Corum, L) and his father, Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), in “Heaven Is for Real.” (TriStar Pictures)

Leap of Faith

You’d think that a congregation of true Christian believers would cotton to this. You’d think that they’d cotton to it like multicolored cotton candy. You’d be wrong. No. Noooo. It scares people. If Preacher Todd keeps preaching like that, he just might get fired. Especially with newspaper reporters sniffing around, trying to get stories about the boy who went to heaven.

When the article comes out, the teasing starts. In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, schoolyard brats and bullying boys tease Colton’s older sister. They didn’t know who they were messing with.

This, of course, sets up one of the many Christian teachings: “You should have turned the other cheek.” Which is the kind of thing a religious movie needs to be careful with.

boys pick a fight with a girl in "Heaven is for Real"
Schoolyard bullies threaten Cassie Burpo (Lane Styles, far R), in “Heaven Is for Real.” (TriStar Pictures)

It needs to be explained in detail why turning the other cheek is a good thing, because in this day and age, that’s long become something to scoff at, especially with everyone now embracing the concept of the inner warrior who takes no guff. And because most of us enjoy the concept of a tiny girl with tremendous Clint Eastwood attitude destroying some schoolyard punks.

mother and father talk to daughter in "Heaven is for Real"
(L–R) Mom Sonja (Kelly Reilly) and dad Todd (Greg Kinnear) scold daughter Cassie (Lane Styles), in “Heaven Is for Real.” (TriStar Pictures)

Here’s an explanation I like: Everyone knows what karma is. It’s the energy of bad deeds that follows people like a black cloud of original sin from lifetime to lifetime, like Ebenezer Scrooge’s chains.

If someone punches you in the face, a sizeable glop of your karma comes off you and lands on them. That person just made your karmic load lighter. Hello? Thank you? “Thank you, sir, and may I have another?!” Turn the other cheek, let him punch you again, and take another sizable piece of your karma off you, lighten your load, and add it to his own personal stash of karmic debt.

More Colton Clairvoyance

father and son look at photograph in "Heaven is for Real"
Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear, L) asks his son, Colton (Connor Corum), if he recognizes someone in a photo taken before Colton was born, in “Heaven Is for Real.” (TriStar Pictures)

Meanwhile, the proofs and clues that Colton actually went to heaven keep piling up. To relate all of them is to spoil the movie. So I’ll just say one more: We see Colton in heaven with Jesus. A little girl comes up to him and hugs him for a very long time. Later, back in Iowa, Colton asks his mom:

“Did you know I have a sister?”
“Well, of course you have a sister.”
“No, I have two sisters. One died in your belly.”
“What was her name?”
“She didn’t have a name. You hadn’t named her yet.”

Sold! Heretofore skeptical mom buys the multicolored cotton candy on the spot. Now Sonja’s a believer. As Colton says, “I see it, so I believe it.”

mother, daughter, and son read a book in bed in "Heaven is for Real"
(L–R) Daughter Cassie (Lane Styles), mom Sonja (Kelly Reilly), and son Colton (Connor Corum), in “Heaven Is for Real.” (TriStar Pictures)

Maybe if you see this movie, you’ll believe it too. Maybe. It’s a challenge. Because while we talk about faith, we usually mean faith where you believe without seeing. But when, all of a sudden, the reverse situation occurs, when someone has seen, has had a vision—we don’t really know what to do with that because we ourselves, personally, might not have had any such visions. It’s a little shocking. It’s comfortable to go to church and feel a warm feel about Jesus in heaven, but what if some kid actually goes to heaven, sees Jesus, hangs out with Jesus? Can we believe that?

Highly recommended for those struggling with belief in spiritual realities. Warning: Eat popcorn instead of candy while watching. Because what will you have if you combine candy with the saccharine sweetness of “Heaven Is for Real?” Diabetes. You will have diabetes. But if you’ve lost your faith—you just might find it again.

man and boy read a book in "Heaven is for Real"
Colton Burpo (Connor Corum, L) and his father, Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), have a bedtime story, in “Heaven Is for Real.” (TriStar Pictures)

‘Heaven Is for Real’
Director: Randall Wallace
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church
Run Time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Rated PG
Release Date: April 16, 2014
3.5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch