As the mother of two boys, 12 and five, I am constantly concerned about what entertainment they take in. To make matters more difficult, I must find appropriate movies, TV shows and videos that will be enjoyed by two boys with a seven-year age difference, and preferably ones that don’t bore either my husband or I to tears upon the umpteenth time watching them.
Thank God for the Veggie Tales series, created by Big Idea, the production company of Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki. Veggie Tales is the popular computer-animated video series that presents religious and moral-themed stories to children in an entertaining way using anthropomorphic vegetables (seriously). And unlike the cartoons of religious-based series in the past, the production values of Veggie Tales is second-to-none, even matching the likes of Disney’s Toy Story for quality.
For years, we (our children, but Paul and I, too) have enjoyed the Veggie Tales videos for the moral messages they provide, while at the same time enjoying the entertainment value of the series. So the whole family has eagerly awaited the first full-feature release, Jonah, the veggietronic re-telling of the biblical story of the prophet swallowed by a whale.
The movie begins with familiar faces (at least for those who are familiar with the videos): Bob the Tomato, Dad Asparagus and their kids on their way to a concert and after an accident, ending up in a seafood restaurant. The children are squabbling and the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything (more familiar faces) retell the Jonah story to teach a lesson about the importance of not taking pleasure in the misfortune of others.
Another regular Veggie Tales character, Archibald Asparagus, portrays Jonah. This is brilliant casting, as Archie usually plays priggish roles; there is no better vegetable to play God’s messenger, who’d rather not go to the wicked city of Ninevah. Disobeying God’s order to go to the city to call upon the Ninevites to repent, Jonah convinces the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything to take him to the opposite end of the (known) world.
There, in Veggie Tale fashion, the biblical story takes yet another turn. Instead of a worm attacking the castor-oil plant that provided shade to Jonah after he finally reached Ninevah (Jonah 4:6-7), Jonah meets a chatty and annoying worm, Khalil, on the pirate ship. Everyone assumes that the storm that threatens the ship (Jonah 1: 6-16) is God’s vengeance against the much-disliked worm, so instead of casting lots (as they do in the Bible) they play a game of Go Fish. Jonah loses, is tossed into the sea with a rubber-duck floatational device and is soon consumed by a whale.
Inside the whale, Jonah is visited by a choir of angels (who resemble the muses in the Disney version of Hercules) who tell him, “The Lord is a God of second chances.” Jonah repents, is spat out of the whale and heads to Ninevah. There he gives God’s message: repent or face God’s wrath (Jonah 3:5-10). The Ninevites repent, but Jonah believes that God would still punish their iniquities. He doesn’t. Jonah sits on the hilltop waiting for some great disaster to befall the city.
Now the pesty worm, who had been reunited with Jonah, eats the castor-oil tree, depriving Jonah of his shade. The prophet is upset that he, not the (repentant) sinners of Ninevah, has been punished.
The moral of Jonah – both the biblical book and the Veggie Tale movie – is that God’s mercy is infinite (if we ask for it). The genius of Veggie Tales – both the movie and the video series – is the teaching of moral lessons in non-moralistic terms.
As Larry the Cucumber, when portraying one of the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, begins the story, “Compassion is when you want to help someone who needs help. Mercy is when you give someone a second chance, even when they don’t deserve it. This is a story about both.” Instead of preaching the message over and over again, the movie illustrates it. This is the modus operandi of Veggie Tales and is precisely why it works. Like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, it demonstrates what Christianity is.
At times, the movie, like the videos, is a little off-the-wall. Series creator Vischer says Veggie Tales is “what might happen if Monty Python took over Hebrew or Sunday school.” At one point in Jonah, one of the pirates says of the wicked people of Ninevah, “They lied. They stole. Most of all, they slapped people with fishes,” harkening to a skit in which John Cleese and Michael Palin slapped each other with fish beside an English canal.
To be honest, Jonah is not as good as many of the shorter length videos. But for parents who are concerned about the garbage that is often fed to our children as entertainment, especially those that have titles with misleading PG ratings, Jonah is a most welcome delight.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Veggie Tales series, go and watch the movie; find the videos (their niche) which are funnier and more clever than Jonah. You’ll be doing your children and yourself a favour.
If we parents want religiously based entertainment for our children, we must go to the cineplexes and support the efforts of Christian producers such as Vischer. The early success of Jonah has encouraged him to try a second instalment, The Bob and Larry Movie. Our family is already eagerly anticipating it.