Big Idea Productions, the studio behind VeggieTales, released its first feature film, Jonah, in 2002. But before founder and owner Phil Vischer could produce a second film, Big Idea declared bankruptcy and sold all its assets to Classic Media LLC.
Since then, Vischer has written Me, Myself and Bob (Thomas Nelson), his book about the faith lessons of Big Idea's collapse; started a new company called Jellyfish, a faith-based idea incubator for family entertainment; and works with Big Idea as a consultant and writer.
On Friday, Universal Studios will release Big Idea's The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie. Vischer wrote the script and voiced "two of the three pirates and half of the other characters." He talked with CT Movies about Pirates, the lessons of Jonah, and the current state of Christian film.
Can you watch Jonah now, knowing all that happened afterward?
Phil Vischer: No, it's pretty messed up. We laid off half the studio the morning after our premiere party. I don't know if you could soil a memory more than that. It was brutal.
When I watch it now, I can smell my ambition—the drive to do as much as I could with Big Idea as fast as I could. We were in financial trouble actually before we went into production. The movie became about me wanting God to put a stamp of approval on my ambition. And he didn't. He consciously declined my invitation. Sometimes the best way to grow is to lose and to fail—dramatically and publicly.
How did The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything come about?
Vischer: Pirates actually started out during the production of Jonah. I had written another film called The Bob and Larry Movie to be the follow-up to Jonah. But when our finances started to completely fall apart in the second half of 2002, we realized we needed to lay off about half our animation staff.
We needed a project to put into production to keep from laying off the other half of the studio. We just didn't have the money to put The Bob and Larry Movie into production. It's an elaborate and ambitious undertaking that even has humans in it. So, I ended up with two months to come up with something simpler and easier to produce.
How did you decide on Pirates?
Vischer: We had so much fun in Jonah with those three characters—The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything. I thought, Could we take these three characters and put together something driven by the dynamic of their personalities?
I ended up with about 25 days to write it so we could keep the rest of the animation studio together. I pulled it off, but that was right about the time we lost the lawsuit with Lyrick Studios. It was the lawsuit that finally killed Big Idea Productions. All the animators had to be let go.
What became of the Pirates script?
Vischer: Before bankruptcy, I thought, OK, well let's sell this out for bidding to a couple animation studios who might be able to do it for us. Much later, the new Big Idea owners got a call from an animation studio in Toronto saying they were interested.
However, as part of the deal for Jonah, Artisan had the first right to release a second VeggieTales movie. The Artisan contact for Jonah was interested but he left for Universal. Luckily he said, 'Let's do this at Universal!'"
When did you get re-involved?
Vischer: The new Big Idea owners invited me to come to L.A. to pitch the story to Universal because it was my story. It was bizarre because three years earlier, we couldn't get any of the majors to show any interest in Jonah. Of course, that was pre-Passion [Mel Gibson's blockbuster hit, The Passion of The Christ]. In fact when I got to Universal, there were 15 executives in the room to hear the pitch. One commented, "We didn't get this many people together to take the King Kong pitch!"
After I walked them though the whole story, the head of marketing says, "That's really great. But, do you think it's Christian enough? Because if it needs to be more Christian, we're fine with that." I thought, What alternate universe did I just wake up in?
How else have you seen Hollywood change between Jonah and Pirates?
Vischer: It's a different world in that so many doors are open. It's very easy to pitch your idea thanks to Passion. It's a very strange world in the sense that everyone in Hollywood is looking for Christian movies.
However, no one knows what a "Christian movie" is. This has created a cottage industry of Christian experts working on behalf of studios to help them find Christian movies or help them figure out how to make Christians come to their movies. It's a bizarre time. The movies that are most obviously "Christian" tend not to be very good. The really good storytellers don't enjoy didacticism—movies that preach or have an obvious and overwhelming moral agenda. But if you want a pastor to promote your movie from the pulpit, which is what the studios are all banking on, you can't leave the message open.
So the movies that appeal most to this new Christian machinery are ones that most filmmakers don't want to make. [Christian moviegoers often] don't like to think hard. We think, Would someone just come out at the end of the film and tell me about Jesus so I will know it's a Christian movie?
That's kinda where we were with Jonah. It taught explicitly. Movies are a good medium to engage people emotionally, but people do not go to movies to be preached at. You can teach explicitly on television, but it's almost inversely proportional in a film: The more you preach, the fewer you reach.
The Pirates movie, to a certain extent, was an attempt to tell a great story with a Christian theme and see, "Will this be more broadly received because it feels more like a movie and less like a very preachy kids' video blown up to film resolution?" There's teaching, but it is subtler than Jonah. I put less pressure on myself to teach explicitly. I'm gonna make audiences think a little harder.
Passion, Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings succeeded in this new environment. But other Christian films—including big budget releases like The Nativity Story and Evan Almighty—have not. What's the secret?
Vischer: Some Christian films have failed flat-out because their plot was their message when it should've been a subtext or a comment that a side character makes in passing. However, if your main character turns to the camera and delivers the truth of Jesus, you've probably lost nine-tenths of your audience in five words. It's hard to accept that when you are a filmmaker who has decided God wants you to use filmmaking to share the gospel.
The Passion was such an anomaly, you really can't use it to learn much of anything about the nature of film. You had the most popular film actor in the world making a deeply personal work of art about a religious story. What are the odds of that happening again?
The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings are also tough test cases. How many Narnias are there? How easy is it to come up with another Lord of the Rings? It's not. There's Tolkien and Lewis and then everybody else. Besides, you couldn't write Narnia today and have it accepted by the evangelical world because [of the magic] and because in its metaphor, it effectively has a non-Christian worldview.
Now, if we go to another fantasy world, we need to find Jesus there—literally. That is why the Harry Potter books are viewed to be straight from the pit. Even if Rowling says she's enjoying Christian themes, forget it. How do you write a Christian fantasy today? I have no idea. I don't know that you can. I think we've killed it. I think we are so concerned with how oppressed our worldview is and so defensive that we've painted ourselves into a corner. And thus, we can't tell the kind of stories that Lewis or Chesterton would have told to share the gospel. It's kind of depressing, frankly.
You said you wanted Pirates to tell a good story with a Christian theme. What's it about?
Vischer: I was trying to build a parable for the Christian life in a little movie about three lazy pirates. The story starts with these poor losers who long to be heroes, but someone else has to intervene on their behalf. This entity is with them all along and called them into the journey.
What I'm saying here is that apart from Christ, I cannot save the day. I'm no good thing. We want our kids to hear that they can accomplish anything if they set their minds to it or if they follow their heart. But Christianity says, "You can do no good thing on your own and your heart is wicked."
Were you tempted to add more overt God content in Pirates after Universal said you could?
Vischer: Because it's a parable, I couldn't have a literal God because there's a figurative God. When Jesus told the parable about the vineyard owner, he didn't mention God because he was already there metaphorically. When you're in Narnia, you cannot talk about Jesus because you're living in allegory.
That is really what this is: an allegory. Bible stories aren't written to make good movies. They are historical. In Hollywood, the idea is, The worst possible reason to put something in a movie is because it really happened. If it doesn't make a good movie, change it. We don't have that leeway because we're dealing with Scripture. We have to tell those stories very literally. That can be compelling for a half hour but doesn't make a good movie.
Was this a big storytelling shift for VeggieTales?
Vischer: It's a shift in that for the first time we said, "Hey, let's allow the characters to drive the story." Some people are already saying, "You've parted from the brand!" But only half the VeggieTales were Bible stories. The others were parodies and parables that conveyed a biblical principle.
How do your expectations for Pirates differ than those for Jonah?
Vischer: Well, I was hoping Jonah would save my company and keep me on a path to build the Christian Disney. That's a pretty high expectation to put on one story. This film, honestly, I just hope people will be engaged by the story and get a glimmer of the Christian life because it's in there if you look for it. That's it.
Vischer also had some interesting things to say about the film and more in this interview with ReligionWriter.com.
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