Is too much VeggieTales a bad thing? My 2½-year-old daughter doesn't think so. She struts around the house with her Junior Asparagus plush toy in hand, joyfully screaming the theme song from the popular video series, butchering every lyric except the climactic "There's never ever, ever, ever, ever been a show like VeggieTales!" Which, of course, is true.
Before the singing vegetables of VeggieTales hit the scene in 1993, there had never been a Christian video series that sold 25 million copies. There had never ever been a fully computer-animated feature (Pixar's Toy Story was still two years away). And there had never ever, ever been Christian-produced entertainment so funny and smart that viewers did not realize they were receiving moral instruction.
And so my little girl pleads for more Veggies: a morning screening of Madame Blueberry, an afternoon jam session with the VeggieTunes 2 CD, a bedtime reading of her VeggieTales storybooks. She's not alone in her appetite for more. In fact, the 2½-year-old demographic is only one sliver of a wide-ranging Veggie fan base. Watching VeggieTales videos has become a favorite pastime of church youth groups, the raison d'être for numerous parties on college campuses, and a not entirely unpleasant experience for that huge captive audience known as Mom and Dad. (Indeed, many parents can recite the words to Silly Songs like "His Cheeseburger" and "The Hairbrush Song" as well as their offspring.)
Phil Vischer certainly isn't worried about Veggie overexposure. He's the creator of the VeggieTales series, the voice of Bob the Tomato and other characters, and the mastermind behind Big Idea Productions, which produces VeggieTales and another hit video series, 3-2-1 Penguins! "Our mission is to improve people's lives by spreading God's truth," he says. And that means getting the Big Idea brand out into the world in as many forms as possible—toys, T-shirts, key rings, interactive games, vacation Bible school curriculum, and this month, in the company's most ambitious undertaking yet, a full-length feature film based on the Old Testament story of Jonah (see "Runaway Aspargus," p. 110).
By now, everyone is at least remotely familiar with VeggieTales. The red and green mugs of Bob the Tomato (VeggieTales' straight man and conscience) and Larry the Cucumber (his dull-witted but lovable sidekick) have become celebrated symbols of evangelical ingenuity in popular entertainment—a realm in which Christians have typically struggled to be taken seriously.
Jim Hill, a columnist for the online publication Digital Media FX, recently gushed about the sophistication and humor of Big Idea's productions. "So what is it that makes the programs that Big Idea puts out so entertaining to right-minded religious folks as well as heathens like myself?" he wrote. "It's simple, really. Not since the late Charles Schulz was working at the top of his game while drawing his acclaimed 'Peanuts' comic strip has there been something that was this silly but profound."
Vischer says he expects 2002 to be the year his company "explodes" into the marketplace. With the release of new video titles, a live stage show, and now Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie (a $14 million production that is scheduled to open in 1,200 theaters on October 4), it's hard to doubt him. Big Idea has never been secretive about its ultimate aim: "To markedly enhance the moral and spiritual fabric of our society through creative media" and ultimately to become "the most trusted of the top four family media brands." When speaking to Christian audiences, Vischer sounds even more ambitious: "We want to change the world."
Mall of Fame
Most shoppers at the Yorktown Center, a busy mall in the western Chicago suburb of Lombard, probably have no idea that the corporate headquarters and production studios for the nation's best-selling children's video series are nestled right here next to Penney's, Payless Shoes, and
Famous Dave's Barbeque. Department signs—WOMEN'S, CHILDREN'S, HOUSEWARES—still hang from the ceiling of the old Woolworth's store where Big Idea has taken up residence while it searches for a permanent site. Still, the place has a lived-in feeling. Workstations are decorated with posters and assorted memorabilia featuring characters from the Muppets, Star Wars, The Simpsons, Toy Story, and Scooby-Doo. When I visited the Big Idea studios last spring, the company's 200 employees were toiling on Jonah, creating animation for Christmas and Easter videos, and planning the second VeggieTales theatrical release (tentatively set for 2004). Walking through the facility, you can practically feel the currents of creative energy.
Though the high-powered creativity is the same, the scene is a far cry from where Big Idea began in the early '90s. Phil Vischer, who was kicked out of a Minnesota Bible college for missing too many chapels, started his company in a spare bedroom with money borrowed from friends and family. Working on one computer, Vischer and his college roommate and puppeteering partner Mike Nawrocki (who gives voice to Larry the Cucumber) dreamed up a collection of vegetable personalities because it would be technologically easier—and cheaper—to animate characters who didn't have arms, legs, or clothing.
The first video (Where Is God When I'm S-Scared?) cost $60,000 to produce and was a financial bust until Word Entertainment agreed to distribute it in Christian bookstores. Sales took off once college students working in the bookstores began playing the videos on store monitors nonstop. Word of mouth took over from there.
What has hooked both child and adult is the videos' wacky brand of humor, which Vischer calls "reverent irreverence." It is a key to VeggieTales' ability to deliver earnest, if not heavy, spiritual lessons. The series changes Bible stories into light-hearted morality plays (with David as an asparagus, Goliath as a giant pickle, and Esther as a lovely green onion), and makes witty references to pop-culture mainstays such as Gilligan's Island (in God Wants Me to Forgive Them!?!) and Batman (in the Larryboy series).
The 19 VeggieTales videos, as well as Jonah, are filled with playful nods to figures like Monty Python, Mel Brooks, and Jim Henson's Muppets—all major comedic influences on both Vischer and Nawrocki.
But the main thing that keeps the series effective is solid storytelling that draws from the deep wells of the Old Testament. Even when the videos look to nonbiblical cultural sources, they are rooted in Judeo-Christian virtues. Madame Blueberry (a brilliant parody of Flaubert) is about thankfulness. Lyle, the Kindly Viking (presented as a newly discovered Gilbert and Sullivan opera) extols sharing. When Pa Grape (portraying a monk) initially resists the idea of helping oddball Vikings who have pillaged his monastery, Lyle (portrayed by Junior Asparagus) says, "But I'm pretty sure God wants us to help everyone, not just those who are nice to us." Vischer says he has heard complaints across the spectrum—the series is either "too religious" or "not Christian enough." But the character traits encouraged by the series—generosity, thankfulness, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness—are fruits of the Holy Spirit.
The MTV Dilemma
Vischer, 36, likes to talk about Big Idea's commitment to creative excellence and how the quality of his animated productions, along with their proven power at the cash register, has given Big Idea unprecedented leverage for a Christian-run company. Consequently, Big Idea has attracted animators and studio execs from Disney, DreamWorks, and cbs.
In person, Vischer is a man bursting with vision and a keen awareness of his own extraordinary success. Yet his understated coolness and clear sense of divine purpose give him a demeanor of humility. Mike Nawrocki, who was booted out of Bible college along with Vischer, says those interested in gleaning more about Big Idea's "Top Tomato," as Vischer has been nicknamed around the company, should look no further than his alter ego, Bob the Tomato.
"We wanted to create characters that were sort of reflections of our own personalities," Nawrocki says. "Phil and Bob are both very driven, while Larry and myself are a bit more laid back. They are sort of extreme versions of who we are in real life."
Vischer admits he's driven—but not by a hunger for success. "I'm driven by a sense of moral outrage," he says. "If the problem was solved, I'd go back home and sit down and say, 'My work here is done,' because this is a really tiring business."
But his work isn't done, and Vischer believes he was put on this planet to realize this "big idea" of revolutionizing family entertainment. His unique pedigree supports that conviction. His mother is a professor of child development and Christian education at Wheaton College; his dad was an advertising executive and "an amazing storyteller." His mom's grandfather was the Rev. R. R. Brown, a legendary radio preacher from Omaha whom Billy Graham once claimed as a major inspiration. His dad's father was a "world-traveling industrialist" who helped build what was once the world's largest tire retreading business.
"I'm made up of this weird mixture of things—part preacher, part artist, part businessman," Vischer says. "I also have a sort of mad-scientist personality that likes to experiment with things."
What's the Big Idea?
When the mad scientist was a child, the world of movies became his laboratory of choice. Armed with a Super-8 movie camera, he made his first film by age 9. Like many filmmakers of his generation, he was enthralled by Star Wars ("I wanted to know, How did they do that?").
But the films that would lead him nearer to his destiny were two computer-animated rock videos on mtv—"You Might Think" by the Cars and "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits. Vischer was hooked. "No one was doing that on tv, those kind of effects," he says. "I was just blown away with how cool it would be to work with that technology."
But MTV also stirred Vischer's preacher side. As much as he loved watching the cable network's videos, he was also acutely aware of the societal implications of the MTV worldview, which objectified women and glorified a consequence-free hedonism. This is trouble, he recalls thinking, "because the values that were coming across in the videos that I was watching were the exact opposite of the values that I was raised with. It wasn't what I learned in church."
Big Idea 101: The Basics is a 72-page booklet written by Vischer that all Big Idea employees are required to read before joining the company. Prospective employees are not asked to sign a doctrinal statement or make a profession of faith, but they are expected to buy into the vision of the company as laid down in "the book."
It's a vision that Vischer has labored long and hard to articulate, and it's one that he believes will carry his company to the next level of cultural influence. Big Idea 101 opens with three quotations that reflect different aspects of Vischer's approach to ministry, business, and art:
- "I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And that which I can do, by the grace of God, I will do." —D. L. Moody
- "Those who tell the stories change society." —Plato
- "Television may be the only electrical appliance in the house that's more useful after it's turned off." —Fred Rogers
The book goes on to highlight Big Idea's philosophy about money ("Money is our 'means' to do good, it will never be our 'end'") and creative excellence (nothing less is tolerated), and concludes with a lengthy essay comparing modern, postmodern, and biblical worldviews. What the book does not spell out is a theology of VeggieTales or a clear statement of doctrinal beliefs. And that's intentional, Vischer says.
"Working here is not about whether or not someone goes to church or which church they attend. It's about whether they think biblical values would be great reintroduced into popular media," Vischer says. "We tell them that we're going to use the Bible as our primary source of truth and ask them if they're okay with that. If they get excited about it, then they can succeed here."
In fact, non-Christian employees have approached Vischer to say how much they enjoy working at Big Idea. "I had one guy come up to me who was moving to another state and had to resign his position, but he said, 'I just want you to know that I'm gay and I'm not a Christian, but this is the best place I've ever worked.' The cool thing is that people like him are immersed in a biblical worldview while they're working here."
Swimming with the Big Fish
When Jonah arrives in theaters this month, it will be accompanied by a marketing blitz heretofore unheard of for a blatantly "religious" film. According to Kris Fuhr, Big Idea's director of theatrical marketing, the film's promotional budget will exceed $12 million, and that's in addition to Jonah's initial production costs. You've probably already seen the film's trailers and TV ads. Now expect to see Jonah hyped on network talk shows, on syndicated showbiz programs, and in every other mainstream media source that ordinarily wouldn't touch a faith-based film.
Jonah is being released through FHE (Family Home Entertainment, a division of Artisan, a major film distributor), whose involvement gives the movie an automatic street credibility that is typically lacking in Christian-produced films. What's more, Big Idea has secured an unprecedented number of licensing agreements—for greeting cards, Curad bandages, casual apparel, toys, books, Bible covers, beach towels, watches, wallpaper, dinnerware—the list goes on.
"It will be a test to see how effective we are at reaching a broader audience," says Terry Botwick, Big Idea's president and chief operating officer and a former cbs Entertainment and Family Channel executive. "One of the things we recognize is that people are asking us to provide more entertainment options for them as an alternative to what is typically coming out of Hollywood."
Fuhr says her team has faced a colossal challenge in taking Jonah into the mainstream. "I think people want to put you in a box," she says. "They want to say this is a Christian film. And no, it's not a Christian film; it's a film that has a Judeo-Christian worldview. But the secular press wants to put you in that box. And I think what VeggieTales has shown is we don't go in a box. Because we deliver lessons in a relevant and accessible way, we're able to meet people in a variety of places on their spiritual journey. And that's why we've been so successful."
Walking that tightrope between the sacred and the secular markets could possibly go down as Big Idea's greatest contribution to the Christian entertainment industry. The company already braved the potential wrath of independent Christian retailers (who were the exclusive outlets for the series) when in 1998 it took VeggieTales videos into the general marketplace and into stores like Wal-Mart and Target. As expected, Christian booksellers experienced some decline in their Veggie sales (and many still express varying levels of irritation). Nevertheless, Big Idea successfully increased its visibility and positioned itself to become a mainstream player. Now with Jonah, Vischer and his talented cohorts hope to bust open more cultural doors.
When Vischer considers the challenge that awaits him, he invokes the names of the other major players in his field—media companies like DreamWorks, Pixar, AOL-Time Warner, Viacom, and especially Disney, the unequivocal king of the family-entertainment giants.
"Disney occupies a cultural position that I don't think any other company has come close to," Vischer says. "What Walt did is extraordinary in that he became the storyteller for a culture. And no one else has ever done that." His fondness for Disney seems to be outweighed only by his conviction that there must be a trustworthy alternative—one that, unlike Disney, embraces a biblical worldview.
With Jonah, Big Idea hopes to make its biggest waves yet in challenging Disney's dominance. Hollywood, the Christian community, and my 2½-year-old are all waiting to see just how well these folks produce.
Edward Gilbreath is the managing editor of Christian Reader and a CT editor at large.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also appearing on our site today:
Runaway AsparagusBig Idea's Jonah is both wholesome and hip.
(The Voice of) Larry the Cucumber Speaks"Nobody thinks growing up that they're going to be a cucumber."
The Serious Business of Silly SongsThe director of music for the VeggieTales talks about bringing musical depth to the score.
The official site for Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie has activities and offerings for kids plus movie information, pictures, and trailers. The corporate site has more information on the company.
Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture discussed Big Idea's video series in "What's Cooking When Martha Stewart Meets the VeggieTales?"
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