Do you like to sing along with Larry? Do you fear the Island of Perpetual Tickling? Ever received bad advice from Fibrilious Minimus, the Fib from Outer Space? If so, chances are that you don't need an introduction to VeggieTales, the immensely popular series of Christian family videos in which talking cartoon veggies act out Bible stories, sing silly songs, and teach valuable moral lessons to children.

Big Idea Productions has at long last brought their nutritious heroes to the big screen. Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie is the franchise's first feature film, a $12 million dollar production filled with that unique Veggie humor that recalls both Monty Python and The Muppet Show. It boasts a spirited soundtrack that features a show-stopping gospel number set in the belly of the whale. And the message—that God is a God not of judgment, but of "second chances"—is clear.

So, now that these garden-variety personalities have hit the big time, how are mainstream critics responding? Fairly well.

"The religious component … is substantial but not excessively didactic," says Claudia Puig (USA Today). "The comedy is funnier than might be expected from art that preaches. The main lessons Jonah attempts to teach are compassion and mercy. That's an unusual—and welcome—message these days."

Kenneth Turan (L.A. Times) calls it "a pleasant surprise … playful, high-spirited and unmistakably amusing. It's nice to see that a sense of humor and a sense of values don't inevitably have to cancel each other out." He especially applauds "The Credit Song" … "which bemoans the fact that songs under the credits never have anything to do with the movie just seen. Even atheists can smile at that one, and, to a surprising extent, at the rest of Jonah as well."

Paul West (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) says, "The pandering, sappy script misses ample opportunities for satire and never brims with enough material or ideas to sustain the picture's 85-minute running time. The film also fails to advance the exciting growth of computer animation."

Religious media critics like those at Crosswalk, Preview, Movieguide, and Douglas LeBlanc at Christianity Today are pleased with the film's unique message. LeBlanc sums it up: "While Jonah does not neglect the themes of God's universal love, or of obeying him, its greatest emphasis is on showing compassion and mercy."

Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) raves about the film and goes on to praise Big Idea: "Impressionable minds are bombarded by negative visuals and sounds from the media every day. I honestly believe that the products from Big Idea help counter that secular influence."

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Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "Jonah's funny, the ultimate criteria for any comedy. It is also well-animated, with an abundance of visual gags that reward a second viewing."

Douglas M. Downs (Christian Spotlight on the Movies) declares Jonah "an absolute scream of a film. Jonah maintains a timelessness that compels you to watch it again and again. The quality is every bit as good as anything that you would expect even from the big boys like Disney or DreamWorks."

I disagree. There are some vivid, detailed, exciting visuals here, but critics who claim the animation has reached Disney/DreamWorks levels are letting their enthusiasm get the better of them. VeggieTales have come a long way, but they haven't achieved visual feats like Toy Story, Monsters Inc, The Prince of Egypt, or Antz. They're a smaller operation and have every right to be proud of their work here. Nevertheless, critics should be careful not to over-praise their accomplishments.

I don't want to spoil the party—I've been a VeggieTales fan for years—but, I do not feel compelled to rush out and see Jonah again and again. I chuckled a few times, and the music was a blast. But to me, the film felt like a long, mediocre episode that fell short of the comedic heights of the video series. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

Here's the biggest problem: The storytellers have given the lead role to the character I find least interesting—Archibald Asparagus. Archibald is modeled after Monty Python's John Cleese, but his snobbishness keeps him from being a hero to whom children will easily relate. Stronger and funnier characters like Bob and Larry get pushed aside throughout the film, giving this snooty, monocle-wearing character the spotlight. Thus I found myself checking my watch. Don't get me wrong—I think families will find Jonah entertaining and amusing. I just wish the movie had lived up to the hilarious precedent set by the early episodes of the show.

Also a longtime VeggieTales fan, Steve Lansingh (Film Forum) expresses similar feelings of disappointment and bewilderment. He explains, "For every great one-liner or emotional moment, there's a grating character or a needless tangent. But particularly dismaying is what it assumes of its audience: That we already know the VeggieTales gang and we already know the story of Jonah. I find it very hard to understand, since this is the characters' big venture into the mainstream, why the movie makes no attempt to introduce its premise and give some indication of the relationships between characters. I'd have been lost if I hadn't seen the video episodes."

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"Nevertheless," he concludes, "I want to applaud the film for the precedent it sets for VeggieTales to leave the Christian bubble and become a topic of conversation among all moviegoers."

Bob Waliszewski (Focus on the Family) is a bit concerned about how children will interpret the differences between the Bible story and the whimsical, goofy Veggie version. "My advice? Take the time to compare the real Jonah with the Veggie variety. That will help children to not conflate the two. Both the movie and the study afterward should be a whale of a good time for everyone."


Hell House is a new independent film about one church's unique method of spreading the gospel. It is not, as the title suggests, a horror film, although some viewers might be horrified by what they see. It is a challenging documentary that is starting debates among viewers, earning raves among critics, and winning awards at film festivals as it tours the country.

Director George Ratliff takes us behind the scenes in the construction of a haunted house organized by Trinity Church (Assemblies of God) in Cedar Hill, Texas. The exhibits inside are written and performed by well-intentioned young churchgoers who want to "encourage" visitors to turn to Jesus by showing them melodramatic, bloody, nightmarish spectacles of sinful behaviors like suicide, abortion, domestic violence, and more.

The Hell House experience is drawing thousands of people, and a profit, to the church, not to mention a great deal of criticism from unbelievers and Christians alike. The head of the program responds to the nay-sayers: "Is our ministry driven by fear? Is fear a part of it? Absolutely. A part of salvation is the fear of going to hell."

Director Ratliff deserves all of the praise he earns for not taking sides in his film. He just lets the camera roll. He shows the brainstorming sessions for skits like "the Rave Scene", where someone asks "Does anybody know the name of the date rape drug?" He shows the set construction, as designers try to paint a good pentagram on the wall of the Occult Scene, and others install openings in the floor where visitors will look down and see hell-dwellers trapped in their misery. Ratliff also takes us to the Sunday morning service at Trinity Church, complete with an outburst of tongues-speaking.

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When the show goes on, we embark on a spooky tour of the grisly scenes. Hell House visitors either giddily cheer for the violent acts, laugh at the corny dialogue, or watch in wide-eyed terror as a young girl is lured into a rape. Some are reduced to tears by the end, where they take comfort in prayer circles. Outside, a group of angry teenagers protest Hell House, objecting to the program's blanket condemnation of all homosexuals. Regarding his film, Ratliff says, "Some people think it's propaganda for the church, some people think it's making fun of them. People take it absolutely differently everywhere. I love that."

Rave reviews for the documentary are coming in from both mainstream critics and religious media reviewers.

Christian critic Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "This surprisingly unjudgmental documentary gives us an extended look into an extremely controversial and oftentimes distasteful exercise in evangelical fervor."

In the secular media magazine Variety, Dennis Harvey writes, "Hell House is a slice of contemporary life many viewers will find bizarre and disturbing, not necessarily in the precautionary-moral way its subjects intend." When discussing the film's prospects for wide distribution, he remarks, "Offshore, this is an incriminating slice of Americana pie one rather hopes won't travel far."

Gerald Peary at The Boston Phoenix says, "The drama is right-wing shlock but also, like a zany 'B' movie, madly entertaining. And if you've yearned to have been there at a medieval morality play (I have!), you'll never get closer to that pre-Shakespearean experience than Hell House."

At About Film, Jeff Vorndam writes, "Usually in a film like this, the filmmaker edits the film to make to make the subjects look like buffoons. Ratliff's style is admirably poker-faced. He affords his subjects their dignity and lets them speak without cutting their sentences on awkward beats or juxtaposing their words with ironic images. It's left to the audience to decide whether the church's activities are commendable or insidious."

I saw the film earlier this week, and while I found it an excellent documentary, the efforts of these young, passionate, well-meaning evangelists troubled me. Drawing stark lines between a sinner's behavior and a saved person's behavior, the performers imply that we can judge for ourselves who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. Certain sins are treated as one-way tickets to hell—rape, spousal abuse, abortion, drugs, homosexuality. More common sins like pride, jealousy, or self-righteousness, just as heinous in God's sight, don't show up on the Hell House radar. Shouldn't the emphasis be on Christ's mission to forgive us from any sin, no matter how depraved, and on his power to heal us when we are the victims of other people's sins?

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It is also disturbing to watch young churchgoers giddily auditioning for the part of "rapist" or "abortion girl," eager to scream and bleed in the spotlight. It seems a strange business to be going on in a body of worship.

Most troubling of all is the way the Hell House tour concludes. When visitors come to the end of these horrors, they are pressured to make a quick decision: Choose Jesus and move into a room where church members will pray with you, or else leave the Hell House and show everyone that you are willing to "gamble" your life away to the Devil. There is no place for meditation or reflection. No option for those who want to keep their thoughts or decisions private. "I'm going to count to five!" declares a grim tour guide, as the visitors make their hasty decision. How many lasting, healthy relationships with Christ have come out of such hurried, pressured, terror-induced decisions?

The Hell House treatment of homosexuality is stirring up strong responses. At DignityUSA, the nation's largest organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trangender Catholics and their families and friends, a representative responds, "The message of the Hell House is quite clear: if you are anything but straight, you simply do not belong in their community. The intolerance that this group, and that of the Religious Right, are advocating is a gross misuse of the message and spirit of Christ. It is our hope that all women and men of faith will reject the Abundant Life Christian Center's message of intolerance and their blatant attempt to profit from their bigotry."

In spite of these discomforting revelations, Hell House also shows us that God is indeed at work in the Trinity community. We hear testimonies of changed lives, healthy relationships, and a sincere desire to serve God. The question for viewers to ponder after the movie is over is this: Is their zeal being put to the best use? Is this what Jesus intended when he asked us to seek the lost and feed his sheep?

Michael Elliott says, "There is no doubt that fear motivates. It is used with great effectiveness by our spiritual enemy. We need not adopt his tactics. There is a stronger motivation that should be used to bring people to Christ. Scaring people into prayer will not build strong, committed believers. It is love that is the "bond of perfectness," not fear."

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While we're on the subject of hellish visions and grotesque behaviors …

After the success of Hannibal (2001), the sequel to the Oscar-winning 1992 film The Silence of the Lambs, Hollywood wasted no time in organizing Red Dragon, a big budget production of the first chapter in the Hannibal Lecter saga, directed by Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, The Family Man).

Red Dragon focuses on forensic psychologist Will Graham (Edward Norton). Graham is famous for apprehending Dr. Lecter, a scene that opens the film. Later, as Graham is enjoying early retirement with his wife and son, he is visited by his former supervisor (Harvey Keitel) and persuaded to chase down a particularly violent serial killer called "The Tooth Fairy." Graham consults with the imprisoned Lecter, hoping to find insight into the active criminal's mind and method. Lecter's counsel helps Graham close in, but the closer he gets, the more he endangers his own life, the security of his family, and the life of a kind-hearted blind woman (Emily Watson) who has obliviously befriended the killer.

Religious media critics are not pleased to see Lecter again, nor the grisly, grotesque stories about his criminal kindred.

Movieguide's critic (not credited) complains, "The violence and references to cannibalism are intentionally grotesque and sensational. There is no hint of redemption. Red Dragon is neither good entertainment, nor good for one's soul."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says the character of Graham helps viewers navigate through the dark story: "Graham's responses to the horrific crime scenes and photos … makes them endurable; he makes us reflect that, as little as we might wish to deal with such ugly realities, it's necessary for someone to do so. (As a film critic, I sometimes feel this way about reviewing certain movies!)"

Gerri Pare (Catholic News) says, "Ratner exercises some restraint … much of the focus is on the FBI agent's determination to put an end to the killing spree. But be assured the distasteful subject matter and upsetting visuals make Red Dragon not for the casual viewer."

Preview's critic condemns its "images of violence … blood and gore … objectionable words … [and] brief nudity."

After hearing that Ratner avoided the indulgent bloodbaths of Hannibal in this episode, I reluctantly attended a screening. I soon wished I had spent the time another way. (My full review is at Looking Closer.) Most of the film is spent making us fear the villain, fascinating us with grotesque details of his carnal appetites and bloodthirsty behaviors. Then, when the villain strikes, the music and camerawork treat the villains adoringly, setting them up like gods. The heroes are more like tour guides in a ghastly exhibit. Thus, the result of such storytelling is not a redemptive examination of the nature of evil, or any kind of insight. We are merely left exhausted, battered, and a little nauseous. There is no excitement or exhilaration related to overcoming the villain. After all, we know Hollywood's going to invent another devil as fast as they can to take the place of this one.

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Digest: Films Christians Haven't Seen. … But Should

Hype and hubbub over the rise in Christian filmmaking—from The Omega Code to VeggieTales—has been encouraging Christians into dialogue about what makes a good movie. For the first time, movies that reflect Scriptural truths are finally making it to the local multiplex.

Some Christian film critics recently discussed classic films that resonate with fundamental spiritual truths. I have asked a few of these critics to share with Film Forum readers some of their highest recommendations for Christian moviegoers, especially focusing on titles that would give a film discussion group good food for thought.

For our first installment, Film Forum welcomes film critic and writer Darren Hughes. Hughes is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Tennessee - Knoxville, where he is writing his dissertation on postmodern history, politics, and American literature of the Cold War. You can look up his film criticism at Long Pauses.

Hughes encourages moviegoers to discover the work of Ingmar Bergman, a director whose films have stood the test of time and remain among the favorites of religious media and mainstream film critics alike.

Ingmar Bergman has described The Seventh Seal (1957) as a filmed debate between his "childhood piety" and his "newfound harsh rationalism" And yet, as has been the case throughout the Swedish director's six decade career, the heart of the film—and, hence, the meaning of our existence—is found in neither. "I infused the characters of Jof and Mia with something that was very important to me," he has written, "the concept of the holiness of the human being. If you peel off the layers of various theologies, the holy always remains" (Images, 235).

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It would be inappropriate to label Bergman a Christian filmmaker. The son of a Puritanical Lutheran cleric, he has long since renounced his childhood faith and turned instead toward something that might be described as existential humanism. Bergman is, however, a profoundly religious artist, by which I mean that he is deeply concerned, first and foremost, with the struggles of the human condition in light of the presence—or, in his case, the absence—of God. For Bergman, there is no hope of heavenly redemption; salvation is possible only through intimate and loving communion with others.

For Christians, such a worldview will necessarily be bleak and nihilistic. Bergman, however, renders his humanist struggles masterfully and with considerable grace, eliciting from his viewers what Frank Burch Brown has called the experience of "negative transcendence": "God appears only as the Absent One, as that which is signified only by the depth of the artfully expressed yearning" (Good Taste, Bad Taste, Christian Taste, 120).

Bergman's acknowledged masterpieces are The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries (1957), Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1972), and Fanny and Alexander (1986). Cries and Whispers is my favorite, but one or two graphic scenes might make some viewers uncomfortable. I would recommend, instead, Bergman's religious chamber trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963). It is in these films, made relatively early in his career, that Bergman makes his struggle with God most explicit. Winter Light, in particular, is a stunning film. The story of a minister in a small town parish who has lost his faith, it refuses pat answers in its critique of religious ritual and hypocrisy. Christian film viewers should wrestle with the film's final image, which, as even Bergman acknowledged, can be read as evidence of God's active presence in our fallen world.

Film Forum will return in two weeks: Adam Sandler gives an Oscar-worthy performance in Punch-drunk Love. But is the film any good?