As I've watched countless VeggieTales videos, their first film Jonah, and now The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything, I've noticed similarities between this series and my favorite franchise as a kid, The Muppets. Both utilize a pool of diverse and established characters (sometimes they're themselves, sometimes they're "acting"). Both are aimed at kids—but wisely and slyly witty enough for adults. And both alternate between retelling known stories and living out original adventures.
While I enjoy all the Muppet movies, I prefer the original stories like The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper. These adventures allow for more creativity, greater freedom and in general, more room for the zany characters to go bananas. After all, you don't have as much story freedom when you're retelling a well-known story—especially, perhaps, a Bible story. And though VeggieTales always found fun but reverent ways to retell its biblical tales, Pirates is proof that the freedom of an original story can lend fun and creativity to the mix.
Besides, Pirates really isn't much of a story-telling departure for VeggieTales. Only about half of the VeggieTales videos are retold Bible stories; the others are parables and parodies. However, as VeggieTales co-creator and Pirates screenwriter Phil Vischer has said, it's the first time he's based a story solely on the personalities of characters. It was a smart move. After all, The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything (played by VeggieTale mainstays Larry the Cucumber, Mr. Lunt and Grandpa Grape) are arguably the most popular of the VeggieTales alter egos—except for maybe Larry's superhero character Larry Boy. In giving them their own movie, Vischer fleshes out these couch-potato pirates and creates a VeggieTales-worthy parable of the Christian life while he's at it.
The story begins with a battle at sea. The dreaded pirate Robert the Terrible, a veggie who has given himself mechanical arms and legs, is attacking a peaceful ship carrying two young veggies, Alexander and Eloise. Robert, the kids' power-hungry uncle, hopes to get rid of the rightful heirs to his brothers' throne. When Alexander is captured, Eloise turns to an invention from her father: a Help Seeker. She turns it on with the hope it will send her heroes. What it actually brings her are The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything, three flawed bus boys from a pirate-themed dinner theatre in the future. Her advisor—and the bus boys themselves—is not too sure about this. But Eloise says: "I trust them because I trust my father."
The fake pirates mean well but have character issues that keep them from their dreams. Elliot (Larry the Cucumber) is scared of just about everything. Sedgewick (Mr. Lunt) is terribly lazy. And George (Grandpa Grape) buys into the idea that he's only a loser who will never measure up to "real" heroes. When whisked away in a magical rowboat to help Eloise, they're sure they don't have what it takes. But when they eventually meet the King, he assures them he made no mistake in selecting them. "The adventure I call you to may not be easy," the King says. "But you are never alone. The hero is the one who does what's right—no matter how hard it is."
Imbedded in this pirate parable are messages about the adventure God calls his followers into: an adventure full of trials he can use to strengthen us, an adventure requiring his provision and guidance, and an adventure in which God can use anyone for great deeds—by his power, not ours. They are good lessons, but some themes are more explicit than others. Honestly, I'm not sure how readily most young children will pick up the more complex messages of the story.
Will kids realize the movie is not just echoing the cultural belief that anyone can be a hero—but instead is saying people can actually only do good through God? Will they recognize that the pirates can't (and don't) save the day but must rely on the parable's God-figure? Will they pick up on the nuances of religious meaning that set this hero tale apart from the average Disney hero tale? They may not. Could it have been a clearer parable and still not get preachy? Maybe. But this isn't necessarily a failure or a sign of an overly complex story. After all, requiring a bit of thinking or discernment in our entertainment is never a negative. But still, it's quite likely many young viewers will only get portions of the full picture being painted. If nothing else, though, Pirates gives parents a good starting point for discussions to get their kids thinking through the movie's messages—ideas bigger than mere heroes, pirates and cucumbers.
When fully unpacked, Pirates imparts the Bible-inspired storytelling parents and kids have come to expect from VeggieTales in a less obvious but as-fun-as-always package. Indeed, the freedom of the original story allows for some inventive bits with a song-happy pirate bar, belligerent Cheese Curls (really!), Galaxy Quest-like rock monsters and cameos from Madame Blueberry, Archibald Asparagus and Bob the Tomato (who, sadly, only has one line.) And like in their previous appearances, the three pirates are very very funny.
Unfortunately, the movie's story pacing and energy levels are uneven. Added to some unneeded scenes (like a second ending that almost repeats what happened moments before), the movie can feel too long and allow too much lag time between engaging bits. In fact, the ending credits features a lively and wonderful parody of the B-52s song "Rock Lobster" that made me wish the entire movie had the same energy, spirit and quick pacing. If it had, these pirates would have really done something.Discussion starters
- Why do you think George, Elliot and Sedgewick feel that "guys like us will never be more than cabin boys"? Are some people just not cut out to be heroes? Why or why not? What do you think it means to be a hero?
- If Elliot, Sedgewick and George are supposed to be normal people like us in the story, who does the King represent? Why do you think that?
- Could the pirates have been victorious without the King? Why or why not? List the ways the King helps them throughout the movie. What do you think this movie says about your ability to do good things without God?
- Each of the three main characters has a weakness that holds him back. What is a weakness that you feel holds you back? Why would God allow humans to have weaknesses like this to struggle with? Read 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. What does this mean? How do you see this illustrated in the movie?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Pirates is rated G, and parents should have no concerns about taking kids. There are some moments of peril, sword fights, cannon-shots and big rock monsters, but it's all done in a "safe," relatively unfrightening way.
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