In my course on page-to-screen adaptations, a student has proposed a paper on the adaptation of the Biblical account of Jonah and Big Idea’s Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.

Upon reading the proposal, I thought, “Wow… I remember writing about that more than 20 years ago. What did I say about it?” I checked Christianity Today and found only a few comments I made in an installment of my long-running Film Forum columns. Then I checked here at Looking Closer and… nope. Couldn’t find a trace of it! And yet, Rotten Tomatoes actually has a record of a review, and says it’s published at Looking Closer.


Turns out that the review page was a casualty of the migration of the Looking Closer from one network to another many years ago. So, for the sake of the record, I’m restoring those original comments on the film here. I wouldn’t count this as one of my finer pieces of writing, but then the movie didn’t inspire me to invest much time or effort in reviewing it. But as there is a generation of VeggieTales fans, and as I am a huge fan of VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer, as one of the original writers of Bob and Larry dialogue is a close friend of mine… I figure I should restore my coverage of this curious moment when Bob and Larry made it to the big screen.

So, for whatever it’s worth… here it is.

The “big idea” of Veggie Tales’ is to loosely retell Bible stories with a cast of garden-variety characters. It’s not a far cry from the way The Muppets used to re-enact famous movie scenes or fairy tales. (The Muppets’ The Frog Prince, A Muppet Christmas Carol, and Muppet Treasure Island are wonderful examples.)

It’s an idea that has sold a zillion videotapes and made Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber household names. Kids are being introduced to Bible stories in a way far more memorable and entertaining than the flannel-graph my Sunday School teachers used to use.

[Image from the Big Idea trailer.]
Most of the best Bible stories are complicated and fraught with troubling questions. Just as we do here with movies, grownup Christians wrestle with those stories, with the evil portrayed there and the glimmers of good, seeking out the meaning and the light there. But for youngsters to understand Bible stories, the stories need to be simplified with as little dilution of the meaning as possible. So I don’t have any problems with VeggieTales’ departures from Scripture. The way the storytellers draw in some details from the Bible story and then alter others is part of the fun.

The VeggieTales’ new movie — straightforwardly titled Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie — is a great example of how hard it is to effectively adapt such a story for children. It represents an ambitious step forward for the company. But unfortunately, as much as I was looking forward to the laughs and the cleverness of a feature-length episode, the movie only provoked a couple of chuckles and more than a few winces. For those who aren’t familiar with the series and its charms, I think this film will be a poor introduction that won’t offer compelling reasons to visit the series.

[Image from the Big Idea trailer.]
While most VeggieTales shows come in the form of a variety show, the movie comes as a story within a story. We get the regular cast of characters in a van en route to a concert. When the van blows a tire, they go looking for help and end up at a late-nite shoreline cafe, where they run into a group of talkative pirates. The pirates see that this argumentative bunch need to learn a lesson, so they tell them a story about an adventure they once had. And thus, the Jonah story.

You know how it goes: Jonah the Prophet doesn’t want to obey God’s order — to go to Nineveh and tell the wicked Ninevites to repent of evil ways. So he runs, gets thrown out of a ship, swallowed by a whale, and then tossed up onto the shore. Humbled, he goes to Nineveh after all and delivers the message.

Once the Jonah story began, I was ready for the fun to really begin. But alas, this is where the air started leaking from the balloon.

Our veggie voyagers fire a cannonball of satire to “splat” on the big screen. [Image from the Big Idea trailer.]
This movie does something no VeggieTales episode has yet done for me… it drags. The charm of VeggieTales is, forgive me, that it comes in bite-size pieces. And the main characters—Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber and the rest of the gang—are bright and simple and vivid and expressive. Here, however, they step onto a much larger canvas, and the main characters we know and love disappear. We’re introduced to a new cast of characters, and they really aren’t very funny or interesting.

Jonah himself is the biggest problem with Jonah. Most kids, and most adults as well, won’t find him compelling, interesting, or funny. He’s a stuffy asparagus with a monocle and a snooty way of talking that just put me off from the get-go. He’s not someone we can relate to. Then he picks up a rather annoying sidekick, Khalil, who seems out-of-place if only because he’s not a vegetable—he’s a caterpillar. You can tell the animators love him and think he’s a million laughs, but he’s not. He’s not an abomination like Jar Jar Binks, but he’s certainly not funny enough to steal the show. Nevertheless, he dominates the rest of the film, wearing out his redundant punchline fairly quickly.

The other strength of the video shows are the “silly songs.” Here, there are a handful, yes, but they’re not terribly silly or clever. They’re spirited and fun, but not nearly as memorable as those I have sung alongside my enthusiastic nephews and nieces while watching the show.

A new non-veggie character dominates steals the spotlight… and that’s not a good thing. [Image from the Big Idea trailer.]
The problems don’t stop there. In the past, VeggieTales have done a wonderful job with stories about Jericho, Esther, and even David & Bathsheba… if you can believe that. But here, something seems “off”.

I’ll explain. I got a chuckle out of these revisionist Veggie-Tales Ninevites. They’re not wicked in any truly troubling ways, but instead have the absurdly rude habit of slapping people with fish. It’s this kind of Python-esque lunacy that makes VeggieTales better than flannel-graph. But when we realize that God is threatening to destroy the city with a blast of fire from the sky, it seems rather harsh punishment in view of the scaled-back sins of this adaptation. Couldn’t they have come up with a softer punishment to fit the softer crime? As in Scripture, Jonah looks forward to the destruction, but here his apocalyptic imaginings are played for laughs. On Ninevite who escapes is shown being “zapped” by God, finishing the job. That’s as morbid as VeggieTales’ humor has ever been, and I found a little too irreverent.

Side Note:

I always thought “fire and brimstone from heaven” was a terrifying prospect even when the peoples in Scripture were engaged in the basest forms of sin. Modern times have made me wonder if the supernatural judgment of God in the Old Testament wasn’t their naive perception of the curses mankind brings upon itself, the logical “wages of sin.” After all, we have seen in recent years how humanity manages to make fire rain down from the heavens and plagues up from the rivers. But that’s mere speculation.

There’s more. When Jonah is running from God by sailing the high seas, he and his fellow sailors interpret the the oncoming storm as a punishing act of God. That strikes me as a strange lesson for kids: Storms and hardship should be interpreted as God’s disapproval with you or your house. Sure, it’s there in Scripture, but there it’s a superstition of the sailors that happened to prove true this once. I don’t think it is presented in that story as a wise way of interpreting circumstances.

The story wraps up abruptly, with a whimper instead of a bang. The conversion of the Ninevites happens so abruptly, there is no sense of excitement or awe. It just seems awfully contrived.

The fact that the filmmakers try to show off their digital prowess is also distracting. The “camera” keeps pulling back, the way Disney movies do when they want to show off their new animation techniques. Sure, Big Idea has done some decent digital work here, about on par with last year’s “Jimmy Neutron”—impressive considering Big Idea is a smaller operation than Pixar. But they won’t earn many gasps for their visuals yet.

Lawrence of… Asparagus? [Image from the Big Idea trailer.]
I sense that they’re so excited about their new toys that they’re forgetting their strengths. Big Idea’s productions are always best when focusing on those simple expressive faces and letting the writers entertain us. When the Muppets went to the big screen, scenes were always anchored in strong, expressive, colorful personalities that we already knew from television and that we could easily relate to.

We know the story of Jonah. We know the story ends while Jonah still “has issues.” This makes the story of Jonah very difficult to package in the formula of satisfactory children’s entertainment. The storytellers make an admirable attempt, by having the Jonah story told to a group of characters who have a story of their own, so the epiphany occurs outside of the Jonah story. But they fumble that too, ending the story on a strangely false note that again confirms the animators are very excited about their new, non-vegetable member of the cast.

I commend the storytellers for focusing on God being the Lord of Second Chances. Our society is too often lectured by televangelists that the main reason they should turn to Christ is because God will condemn them to the everlasting broiler if they don’t. That’s not the gospel as Jesus presented it. It’s a good thing to remind audiences that God is a God of grace. I am not denying that misery awaits those who deny God… misery of their own devising, their own choosing, misery they’re probably already getting acquainted with. But scare tactics are not an admirable way to try and change lives. The results are usually as temporary as the influence of a horror film. Devotion to God comes from encountering His love and His grace and the freedoms open to us when we follow his commandments. These guys have that part down. That’s a relief.

These aren’t your flannel-graph Ninevites.. [Image from the Big Idea trailer.]
So yeah, VeggieTales is a whimsical and fun way to play Cartoon Sunday School. It doesn’t apologize for being rather “preachy.” The characters even roll their eyes at the perfunctory nature of “the moral at the end of the story.” Thus it’s accessible to viewers who would usually run at the sight of a steeple. But when it comes to storytelling and craftsmanship, it’s clear these vegetables still have some ripening to do.

I trust there are better things ahead for Big Idea. God is, after all, the God of “second chances.”


Hmm, something just struck me.

Could it be that the “fish-worship” and the “fish-slapping” are a subtle reference to the “fish symbol” embraced so widely by evangelical Christians who then use their “salvation” to slap other people around, brandishing Christian faith as a tool for judgment and legalism?

Could it be a subtle suggestion that contemporary Christians might “wise up” and treat each other and unbelievers with respect and compassion and kindness?