The 'VeggieTales' studio takes a $14-million gamble with its first movie

Posted: Friday, October 04, 2002

The star is an asparagus. His buddies include a tomato and a cucumber. And they're featured in a movie based on the biblical tale of Jonah, the guy who got swallowed by a whale.

What's the big idea? At Big Idea Productions, it's that kids' entertainment can teach children a thing or two about morality and religious faith yet still trigger a belly laugh or two.

The independent studio from suburban Chicago is about to find out if mainstream moviegoing audiences agree. Its first feature-length film, ''Jonah -- a VeggieTales Movie,'' opens Friday.

Big Idea has put $14 million into the movie, making it a gamble even though the company has sold nearly 30 million of the startlingly successful ''VeggieTales'' animated videos over the past nine years.

''Jonah'' recycles the biblical book into a fishy story-within-a-story starring Archibald Asparagus (voiced with a British accent by Big Idea founder Phil Vischer) in the title role, alongside Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber and others from Big Idea's improbable garden of animated fruits and vegetables. (''No vegetables were harmed in the making of this film,'' viewers are assured.)

As with the home videos, Mom, Dad, and other viewers above VeggieTales' target ages of 3-8 will be amused by knowing cultural references: ''Jaws'' and ''Lawrence of Arabia'' sneak into the film, as do snack foods, a pop singer, and audiotapes by a motivational speaker (''You are powerful and attractive. You do not run from your problems.'')

There are also silly ditties (the best one, ''The Credits Song,'' comes at the end of the credits) and goofy gags. When the prophet Jonah enters town to preach God's law, fast-food stands that offer pork, bats and bugs instantly turn kosher and start selling bagels and coffee.

In this quintessentially Jewish story, the good guy (who was scripted prior to the Sept. 11 attacks) is Khalil, a vaguely Muslim traveling salesman who's half caterpillar, half worm.

Actually, either Muslims or Jews would find VeggieTales productions wholesome rather than troublesome, apart from the studio's Christmas and Easter videos. But Vischer, Big Idea's Iowa-bred founder, is very much a product of white evangelical Protestantism -- the Christian and Missionary Alliance, to be specific.

The 36-year-old Vischer says white, Protestant America has lots of nice, happy people but little great humor. Maybe the people are too comfortable, he muses, admitting that he escaped into humor when his parents divorced. His personal idols became Britain's Monty Python crew and the Coen brothers.

Vischer was tossed out of Minnesota's St. Paul Bible College (now Crown College) for skipping chapel too often, and he started working in video production rather than studying elsewhere.

In 1993, Big Idea produced ''Where's God When I'm S-Scared?'' -- a pioneering children's video with 3D computer animation. By 1998, Wal-Mart came calling.

College degree or not, Vischer is a philosopher who wrote the 72-page ''Big Idea 101'' manual for prospective employees. It champions a nonsectarian ''biblical worldview,'' which Vischer defines as hope that results from belief that ''there is an Author. We live in a grand story -- the triumph of a loving God.''

He contrasts that with the ''modern worldview'' that he thinks was typified by Walt Disney and survives in preschool entertainment. It sees no Author but upholds ideals and another grand story, ''the triumph of reason, evolution and the progress of the human spirit.''

That's fine as far as it goes, he says, but that culture is fast fading and today's children increasingly consume ''postmodern'' entertainment that's cynical, bereft of any grand story, hope or ideals. In a word: ''whatever.''

The married father of three preteens said in a phone interview that, after age 8, what children watch gradually becomes ''more disrespectful, sarcastic and cynical.''

Not that the big entertainment corporations are immoral ''but they're profoundly amoral. They will change values like we change socks,'' he says. ''The problem with amorality in media is, 'Give them what they want.'

''We are committed to giving kids what they need and making it what they want.''

What they need, he insists, is values that will benefit them and society. Each show, he says, should have ''a nugget of truth a kid can put in his pocket and carry around the rest of his life.''

In Vischer's view, children's entertainment has been -- and still is -- either ''completely earnest'' (''Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'') or ''completely snide and insincere'' (''The Beavis & Butt-Head Show''). VeggieTales, he says, falls somewhere in the middle.

''We figure out what is sacred and treat it with respect'' and otherwise, ''we don't take ourselves seriously,'' he says. That means irony yes, sarcasm no.

If ''Jonah'' succeeds, Big Idea hopes to reach older youths with more feature films, a record label and television shows, with Vischer vowing that the company will never cede creative control to the conglomerates that dominate the family entertainment market.

But that's down the road. Right now, Big Idea is just hoping for decent box office for ''Jonah.''

Says Vischer: ''We're banking on our audience of parents who are trying to pass biblical values to their kids and want fun ways to do it.''


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