“Easter is new beginnings. New life. Easter's about hope.” So says Bunny, voiced by Hugh Jackman in the 2012 animated film Rise of the Guardians. Bunny’s job, along with other guardians North, Tooth and Sandman, is to uphold hope and all that is good for children around the world. In Rise of the Guardians, Bunny is a fierce creature, part Ninja, armed with boomerangs he knows how to use. What a delight is this movie and its somewhat simplistic message about the struggle between hope and hopelessness.
Why, you might ask, is Bunny the symbol of hope? Twenty years ago while living in the famous Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I experienced the magic of Easter in the northern hemisphere for the first time. After a brutal winter with three weeks off school and waist-deep snow, the dogwood trees lining the main streets all bloomed at Easter. It was breathtaking. The death/resurrection metaphor of nature exploded before my eyes in ways I’d never experienced. Walking to Mass on Easter Sunday I felt the newness of life all around me in flowers, in trees, in the baby bunnies hopefully exploring the newly sprung grass and in the women’s festive dresses and hats.
The 1948 movie, Easter Parade, starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, captures that same magic. The film is one of the innovative “integrated musicals” of the 1940s, beginning with Meet Me in St Louis in 1944 and culminating in the great success of Singin’ in the Rain in 1952. In the 1930s musicals all took place on stage, but by the 1940s the settings were more everyday. One of the best scenes of Easter Parade occurs early in the film when Fred Astaire sings and dances “Drum Crazy” in a toy store. The scene may be morally questionable, because Fred’s goal is to distract a boy from purchasing a bunny Fred wants himself; but there’s no doubting Astaire’s exceptional talent. He’s a little old to play the love interest of Judy Garland (she’s half his age) but the studio lured him out of retirement to take the role after Gene Kelly broke his leg.
Today, we appreciate the power of musicals to enable characters to sing about feelings that might otherwise be unknown to audiences. Easter Parade is a piece of that heritage, one of the great MGM studio − where there are more stars than there are in heaven − musicals produced by Arthur Freed. It’s movie magic!
The 2000 film, Chocolat, employs magic of a different kind. A whimsical fable with touches of magical realism, the film stars Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina and Johnny Depp. One might be forgiven for thinking the moral of the story is that giving up chocolate for Lent causes good people to do bad things. Perhaps the Easter Sunday homily of Père Henri better summarizes the film’s blatant theme of tolerance, love and kindness:
We can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do…by what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude…we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create…and who we include.
The winner of this year’s Academy Award for best animated feature, Zootopia, concerns a bunny named Judy who wants to become a police officer in the big city. It’s a tough goal, one that her parents and everyone she knows tries to steer her away from, but she follows her dream to its fulfillment.
Talk about a symbol of hope! Officer Judy is just a delight. I was fascinated by the personification of her bunny ears, which tell us all we need to know about her. Sad Judy: ears down. Happy Judy: ears up. Beyond great animation and a terrific pair of ears, the plot is interesting, intriguing and relevant. Judy lives the dream, but not without complications. She is not perfect. As she says, “Real life is messy. We all make mistakes. No matter what type of animal you are, change starts with you!” To succeed as a police officer in the metropolis of Zootopia, Judy has to build and sustain relationships, often with individuals she has stereotyped and wrongly judged.
Another relationship-driven movie is Warm Bodies (2013), which sets the story of Romeo and Juliet in a post-apocalyptic world, where the male character, R, is a zombie and the female character, Julie, is human. Think of the film as a zombie romantic comedy (zom rom com?), with a significant message: love makes us human. Not only does R’s love for Julie bring him back from zombiedom, but seeing the pair holding hands invokes other zombies to strive to regain their lost humanity as well. If Warm Bodies is a thinly veiled reworking of the Shakespearean classic, its message that smart phones and online media are killing human interactions is barely veiled. Zombie films often emerge during times of societal crisis.
The zombie archetype first appeared in Haiti in the early 1600s, mirroring the inhumane treatment of African slaves. Many slaves believed dying would release their suffering; instead they became undead slaves − denied their own bodies and yet trapped inside them.
Perhaps the first well-known zombie movie is George Romero’s great zombie film Night of the Living Dead (1968), which appeared during the height of the Cold War. In a later Romero film, the zombies infect others through the mixing of bodily fluids, an obvious commentary on the AIDS epidemic.
The zombies of Warm Bodies are a little more touchy feely. Their ailment seems to mirror the modern fixation with technology that draws us away from the present to live in the isolating cocoon of the virtual.
While the bunny may not be the best metaphor for hope in the southern hemisphere, Easter is certainly about new beginnings. One might argue there’s nothing Christian about the Easter Bunny. But then again, the word ‘Easter’ is derived from the Norse Goddess of fertility. As we regroup from summer’s brutal heat, Easter’s crisper air provides an opportunity to take a breath, to spend time with others, to eat chocolate and watch a movie or two!