VeggieTales fan alert! Regardless of whether you liked the big-screen debut of Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber in Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, you must agree that the two main characters of the popular video series were reduced to supporting characters. For better or worse, an asparagus and a caterpillar stepped into the movie's spotlight. Next time, though, that won't be the case.

Reuters reports that VeggieTales are on their way back to the big screen with The Bob and Larry Movie. But fans of these nutritious cartoons will have to wait until 2005. Big Idea estimates that the new film will cost in the range of $20 million to $25 million to produce, about the same amount that the first film has grossed to date. The higher production cost is partly due to the introduction of some "human characters." And there will be other differences: The Bob and Larry Movie "won't feature an overtly religious yarn."

Watch this column for updates—over the next two years.


In other movie news, Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity), reports that a few Christian rock bands have turned down the invitation to have their work appear in a new movie called Saved. Their reason? The film seems designed to ridicule Christians as evangelical zombies hunting down saveable prey. The movie, produced by rock star Michael Stipe, stars Jena Malone (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) and Mandy Moore (A Walk to Remember.) Chattaway offers a plot summary and comments from the cast.

Hot From the Oven

Last week, Film Forum ran early discussion of Steven Soderbergh's Solaris. Some found it a challenging, award-worthy spectacle. Some argued that the film was worth seeing, but inferior to Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's much more challenging 1972 Solaris (I'm with them). Then there were those who found it challenging to stay for the entire 95 minutes, and they came out distressed and dissatisfied. This week, opinions are similarly divided, but the majority sum up Soderbergh's first sci-fi venture as a voyage to nowhere.

Simon Remark (Hollywood Jesus) is pleased with the result. "Solaris is an intelligent, thought-provoking, beautifully shot exploration of philosophical and spiritual ideas and issues, such as personhood, the afterlife, memory, existentialism, and the nature of reality. It brings up so many spiritual and philosophical ideas and questions. And what I love about it is, it leaves so many questions unanswered. … Not a lot is explained about the planet Solaris, and I'm not sure the planet itself is incredibly important, perhaps it is a metaphor for something else, or maybe it's just a catalyst for the more important themes in the film."

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J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) sees pros and cons. "Soderbergh is a master craftsman, whose command of camera movement, lighting, and sound is brilliant. Having said that, though, this version still left me cold. Clooney doesn't quite have the depth to pull it off, and the film's conclusion is bizarre, New Age wish fulfillment. Like many adventurous science fiction films of the last two years (think A.I. and Minority Report), this is an ambitious movie that comes up short."

Dick Staub praises Solaris as beautifully filmed and well acted but adds, "Only those with a heavy tolerance for freshman philosophy will find the posing of [the movie's] questions and deliberations over their answers satisfying. Go along for the cinematic ride, but don't be taken by the philosophical, theological drivel."

Blaine Butcher (Preview) argues, "The story has positive themes of forgiveness, loyalty and personal responsibility, and some conversations about God, the metaphysical and the afterlife. These positives, however, are overshadowed by graphic images of sexual intercourse, some nudity, and bloody scenes."

Movieguide's critic says it's "a pointless movie with underdeveloped characters, plot and concept that touts a strong humanist message, removing God from existence and giving power to some unknown alien being."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) concludes, "Solaris fails at both ends of the spectrum: it is a very boring story with special effects that just aren't interesting."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "Soderbergh is an archer aimlessly firing philosophical arrows into the air in hopes that he'll hit something (which occasionally he does.) Without a target, this ambiguous intellectual exercise gets tedious. Many viewers will leave the theater more frustrated than fascinated."

Phil Boatwright says the film dwells on "the meaning of life and the existence of God. Unfortunately, it prefers to dwell on Clooney's naked bottom than giving much thoughtful merit to those questions." For Boatwright, two glimpses of Clooney's backside qualify as "a predominate visual that will remain the focus of discussion, bypassing the story's theme."

Hmmm. I've visited several online chats about the film, from Christian film critics and mainstream moviegoers. I've found no civil unrest about buttocks, only healthy discussion and debate over the film's thought-provoking conclusion and how this Solaris compares to the original film and the Stanislaw Lem novel. However vague this film's implications may be, movies like this can give the Christian moviegoer windows of opportunity to discuss things that don't come up in everyday conversation.

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For an excellent, detailed comparison of the two film versions, read Doug Cummings's review. "If the former film is about dealing with one's past in the form of unresolved guilt, emphasizing emotional work and renewal, the new film is about returning to the past to the point of complete immersion," he writes. "Viewers would scoff if a film presented a doctor who regularly smoked or ate spoiled food, but movies regularly depict psychologists making the worst emotional choices conceivable. Given the film's sultry visuals and sappy twist ending(s), self-destruction has never looked so sexy."

Mainstream critics are still at odds as well, but Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) speaks on all three versions. "The problem is, whichever version of Solaris you encounter first may well spoil the other—as well as the book. I saw the Tarkovsky film before I read the … novel it's based on, which suffered a lot as a consequence. Soderbergh's … is several rungs below both. And it doesn't even cite its key source, Tarkovsky's film, in the credits. So if you get to it first you'll probably be cheating yourself; I'd call it 'worth seeing' only if you've already seen the Tarkovsky."

And Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) says, "The movie wants to be a poetic evocation of Loss, but since the relationship, as shown, remains naggingly sketchy and abstract, it's hard to work up much feeling over its demise, or its restoration. Soderbergh, in essence, has come up with a plodding and far less psychologically arresting version of Ghost."


Disney's Treasure Planet, which transforms Robert Louis Stevenson's classic island adventure into a Star Wars-style space epic, continues to draw high praise from Christian press critics, just as it did last week.

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "In addition to being visually dynamic and flat-out entertaining, the movie includes themes parents and teens can explore together: The source of true wealth. Choosing friends and judging character. The transformation of Jim from an aimless troublemaker to a young man of purpose. Self-sacrifice. Loyalty. Mercy. Justice. Families may wonder if a film with so much going for it has anything working against it. Not really."

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Phil Boatwright says, "The film … has a visually stunning look. The perfectly chosen voices, the humorous dialogue, and the adventurous story are each engrossing, making this one of the most creative children's films of this year.  There's also an important message about friendship, integrity and self-sacrifice interwoven into the action."

Lisa A. Rice and Tom Snyder (Movieguide) agree: "Treasure Planet is an excellent movie for the whole family. In fact, it may be the best animated movie of the whole year."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) offers a caution to parents: "While I enjoyed the movie and liked the fact that an old classic was remade into a modern sort of 'pirate tale' for kids, this one still has a few scenes that prevent it from being kiddie-friendly."

James Akin (Decent Films) writes, "Stevenson's book is a ripping adventure tale with more plot twists and more character depth than many children's books. By following its story as closely as they have, the filmmakers have retained much of what made the novel a classic." Paul Bicking (Preview) concludes, "Stevenson's story loses none of its excitement in this reimagined tale that's sure to be a holiday treat."

But many mainstream critics were not quite so enthusiastic. Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) asks, "What can you say about a cartoon in which the super-ultra-bland teen adventurer hero has not one, not two, but three annoying jabber-happy sidekicks?" And Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) asks, "Why not challenge the kids with a version of an actual book written by a great writer, instead of catering to them with what looks like the prototype for a video game?"


The holiday season's other animated feature, Eight Crazy Nights, failed to attract any religious press raves.

Comedian Adam Sandler made a strong impression on critics earlier this year with Punch-Drunk Love, in which he played a young emotionally damaged man learning to control his anger. It was considered a dramatic departure from his usual juvenile behavior. Since it involved real acting and serious issues, the film turned off most of Sandler's fans, who prefer adolescent humor to thought-provoking comedy. Well, fans of big-screen flatulence, never fear! Just in time for Hanukah, Sandler's back with an animated holiday special packed with lowbrow laughs.

Phil Boatwright says, "Evidently, [Sandler] wanted to bring Hanukah to the attention of those unfamiliar with the Jewish celebration, so he's wrapped his story around those holidays. This portrait of the custom is about as reverent as an Alpo commercial. Sandler is funny, there is no getting around it. And the film exhibits something approximating a life lesson (bitter man finds redemption), but it is crude in the extreme. It's downright vulgar. Be warned, parents, this one isn't for the normal family." Lynn Nusser (Preview) echoes that opinion: "While this animated musical is funny, its humor is too vulgar for kids and too immature for adults."

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Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) explains. "As flawed as Eight Crazy Nights is, one cannot responsibly ignore its freakish nobility. The morality tale is intact. It's just encased in deer dung—literally. It's a juxtaposition so jarring it's likely to find favor with no one. Hardcore fans of animated debauchery (such as can be found in South Park) will hate its sappy ending and 'tiresome' life lessons. The rest of us will despise its vulgar asides, shameless innuendo, and cruel jests."

Ed Blank (Catholic News) agrees: "Audiences in search of seasonal sentiments won't want to wade through the movie's first hour. Sandler's core audience is just as likely to find the concluding scenes too sappy for what leads up to them. Davey's inevitable redemption … isn't just unpersuasive. It becomes a license to let him behave as outrageously as he can beforehand."

Whether or not mainstream critics celebrate Hanukah, they certainly aren't celebrating Sandler's movie. Bruce Fetts (Entertainment Weekly) gives it a failing grade, saying "[It's] the most ill-conceived animated comedy since the 1991 dog Rover Dangerfield. Eight Crazy Nights' doesn't just cram as many poop jokes as possible into the longest 71 minutes of your life. Sandler actually has the chutzpah to expect you to care about his caricatures." Roger Ebert exclaims, "Heaven help the unsuspecting families … expecting a jolly animated holiday funfest. The holidays aren't very cheerful in Sandlerville. If there was ever a movie where the upbeat ending feels like a copout, this is the one."


Extreme Ops drew in crowds of action fans this week for a wild mix of extreme sports and anti-terrorist antics. It involves a group of athletes filming a commercial for sports gear on snow peaks in Austria. The group stumbles onto a fugitive terrorist's hideout, and thus they have a good excuse for stunts galore in the name of saving the world. This film is not based on a true story.

 "The film is crammed with death-defying action stunts and a whole lot of character attitude, but little else," writes Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter). "The plot is borrowed from other films, and the dialogue and direction keep it from seeming fresh or imaginative."

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Steven Greydanus (Catholic News) says the movie "looks an awful lot like one of those supercharged sports-themed TV commercials, with glossy footage of daredevil athletes snowboarding down sheer ice walls, skateboarding atop trains, and throwing themselves off precipices. At least the protagonists seem to be enjoying themselves—when they're not skiing for their lives, of course."

Mainstream critics seemed eager to put the experience behind them. Elvis Mitchell (New York Times) says, "It is hard to say what Extreme Ops is a bigger waste of: film or time."


If you're looking for religious press critics' opinions on the new horror film They,  they weren't excited enough about the film to see it. Only Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) braved the failed fright-fest: "They is a borderline R-rated horror flick that succumbs to genre clichés and thinks blending Mimic with A Nightmare on Elm Street constitutes a new idea. This is just a variation on a tired theme."

Still Cooking

Far from Heaven continues to draw raves from mainstream critics for its award-worthy performance by Julianne Moore, its gorgeous cinematography, its re-creation of '50s movie conventions, and its story of racial and sexual prejudice. Religious press critics continue to find praiseworthy aspects of the film as well. This week, Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) offers a rave review.


The Emperor's Club also drew more raves from Christian press critics this week. Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) call it "a clear message for a world in search of moral answers to the complex problems we face.  When completed by living with a faith in God, it is a message that could change the future as we build on the lessons of the past."


Christian critics and pastors continue to take stands in favor of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter adventures. The latest movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, has won more defenders in Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity), Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus), and Pastor Brett Younger (Ethics Daily.)

Wayman and Conklin's review explains, "A final lesson of this chapter of Rowling's saga is the emphasis on the Phoenix, dying and rising to new life and helping those who have the courage and loyalty needed to defeat evil.  Its red wings bring just what is needed to Harry, just as the experience of God's providential provision and healing has empowered humanity for centuries."

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Chattaway writes, "Harry is beginning to find his place within an established tradition, and this can speak very powerfully in this day and age to people who feel rootless and long to be connected to a community with a past. If anything, Christian parents should be able to embrace this longing, and to encourage their children to find its fulfillment in our own faith, which has a colorful history and tradition of its own."

Pastor Younger replies to a Potter-bashing correspondent, saying "You are, of course, right that there are real enemies of God's grace out there, but Harry isn't one of them."

Next week: As movie studios prepare to turn loose their heavyweight Oscar-hopefuls to moviegoers who are anxious to come in from the cold, critics are getting early glimpses of some exciting stuff. I'll offer early looks at Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Martin Scorcese's Gangs of New York, and Spike Jonze's Adaptation.