"VeggieTales" has been called "the biggest pop culture phenomenon you’ve never heard of." That may be an exaggeration. There are probably even bigger ones you’ve never heard of, but then I’ve never heard of them either, so I can’t tell you about them.
However, big or little, I’ve long had a weakness for these things. For the uninitiated, "VeggieTales" is a series of CGI videos released by the demented geniuses at Big Idea. They are chiefly the brainchildren of Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki, and feature odd retellings of Bible stories or illustrations of biblical teachings, all done by a cast of vegetables led by Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber.
I know. It sounds uninspiring on paper, if you haven’t seen them. But — you gotta trust me on this — these guys are really funny, a sort of strange brew mixing Monty Python, MTV, your third grade Sunday School teacher and a tiny bit of Robin Williams — all with a G rating. And now, they’ve done a very funny movie (Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie) that introduces kids to the story of Jonah while keeping grownups entertained as well.
The story you know, sort of: Prophet (played by Archibald Asparagus, voiced by Phil Vischer) told to go and warn Nineveh of impending doom. Prophet hot-foots it out of there because he wants Nineveh to fry. Hops boat to Tarshish (captained by the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything). Big storm. Thrown overboard. Becomes ingredient in a Whale Big Gulp (along with the not-exactly-biblical sidekick Khalil, his half worm/half caterpillar buddy, voiced by Tim Hodge). Prophet says he’s sorry. Urrp. Goes to Nineveh and prophesies. Nineveh repents. He’s ticked. God tells him he loves everybody, not just the Chosen People.
This is a story that’s full of comic possibilities, given the right demented geniuses; and the movie exploits them, often with an eye on contemporary secular — and Christian — culture.
For instance, Jonah takes what could have been a boring and saccharine tune about obeying God’s laws ("A Message from the Lord") and turns it into a cunning lampoon of comfortable suburban religiosity. Jonah’s self-satisfaction is so thick you can cut it with a knife, but it is the self-satisfaction of the platitudinous American pietist ("Don’t do drugs! Stay in school! A Message from the Lord!"). Prophetic oracle as Public Service Announcement. These guys have no intention of letting their suburban Evangelical "base audience" get away with looking down on Those People Over There. It’s wickedly subversive — like the book of Jonah.
The great thing about Jonah, like all "VeggieTales", is the playfulness of the writing. Nawrocki simply has an ear for the goofy. ("I’ll hoist the mainsail!" "I’ll pop the popcorn!" "And I’ll get the moist towelettes!") The film is littered with odd little ditties giving vent to Nawrocki’s quirky gift for nonsense verse and whimsical dialogue. (Be sure to stay all the way to the end of the closing credits to hear "The Credits Song") Nawrocki and composer Kurt Heinecke have a knack for coming up with music that somehow manages to be faithful to "the message" yet which you like so much that you don’t feel preached to. It is also well-animated, with an abundance of visual gags that reward a second viewing.
The story is framed (a frequent device in "VeggieTales") with a quarrel between a couple of the Veggie kids that relates to the problem in the biblical story. Kids can track with this and can see how the story relates to them.
Some critics complain of "VeggieTales" because they don’t treat biblical stories with the solemnity of a Gustave Dore illustration. But I think this criticism is ill-considered. "VeggieTales" never mocks the story or the moral itself. Vischer and Nawrocki are serious Evangelicals. Neither do they dumb the biblical story down or give short shrift to things like sin by explaining it away as "poor communication" or "being a victim." Rather, they translate biblical ideas into something kids can grasp. They know that (particularly with this mass-market film in post-Christian America) they are presenting a Bible story to an audience of children suckled on MTV for whom monotheism may very likely be news. So they are simple, but they don’t condescend. Amazingly, they pull it off, translating Jonah into G movie terms digestible by a five year old, yet still funny enough to reward the adult viewer.
The inhabitants of Nineveh are therefore not the Assyrians of history who left mounds of human heads in their conquering wake. For these uplifting and child-friendly visions, the people at Big Ideas opt to allow parents let their kids watch cable television. Instead, the Ninevites are sarcastic French pea rudesbys (with French accents, of course) who slap each other with fish because they don’t know any better. Likewise, the sojourn of Jonah in the whale’s belly is handled with flair as the occasion for a big angelic black gospel choir number that somehow works.
But most of all Jonah’s funny, the ultimate criteria for any comedy. As comedic art, it works. I cracked up (an extremely rare phenomenon when I go to comedies since most of them — and this is important for filmmakers to understand — aren’t funny). Jonah is. Go see it, not because "it’s good for you" but because it’s fun!
Oh, and my kids (they range in age from 15 to 5) urge me to tell your kids they’ll love it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.