Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Defining the Christian Movie Part 2: Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie (2002)

     Welcome back to the “Defining the Christian Movie” series! If you’re just reading for the first time, this month I’m taking movies that I’ve seen that could be considered “Christian movies” and analyzing how they portray spiritual elements, rather than analyzing what those are. Today’s movie is a little less explicit about Christianity, but its source comes straight from the Bible—and so does some of the dialogue. Ladies and gentlemen, here’s my childhood source of entertainment: VeggieTales.

     Around the time I was born, a few guys from Illinois created thirty-minute computer-animated cartoons of vegetables on a countertop telling kids about God. This was called “VeggieTales”, hosted by Bob the Tomato (voiced by Phil Vischer) and Larry the Cucumber (Mike Nawrocki). And in 2002, “VeggieTales” had enough money and popularity for Vischer and Nawrocki’s studio Big Idea Productions to make a movie. Thus came “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie”, a movie straight from the book of Jonah in the Old Testament.

     “Jonah” begins with Bob the Tomato, Junior Asparagus (Lisa Vischer) and his dad (Dan Anderson), Laura the Carrot (Kristin Blegen), and other signature VeggieTales characters on their way to a concert. Along the way, the characters get into an argument, their van goes rolling down a hill, and out of gas, they resort to a nearby restaurant. Next to them at the restaurant are the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, aliases Larry the Cucumber, Pa Grape (Phil Vischer), and Mr. Lunt (Phil Vischer… again). They overhear the arguments next to them and start telling the vegetables a story of mercy and compassion: the story of Jonah.

     Jonah, alias Archibald Asparagus (yes, Phil Vischer), is a renowned prophet called by God to go tell the people of Nineveh to repent, or their city will be destroyed. After singing a song (yeah, this is a musical), Jonah takes a ship to Tarshish (the opposite direction) and meets up with… the Pirates… How come it took me ten years to be confused by that? Anyway, the Pirates start taking Jonah to Tarshish, who is soon accompanied by a caterpillar/worm named Khalil (Tim Hodge). (Khalil turns out to be the worm from Jonah 4:7, but I’ll let you figure that one out.) Long story short, God brings a storm to threaten the ship and the vegetables in it, and Jonah realizes that he has brought this upon them for disobeying his God. What Jonah tells the Pirates and Khalil comes almost directly from Scripture:

JONAH: I’m a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven who made the sea and the land. And I’m running away from Him! He told me to go to Nineveh, but I didn’t listen! You know, I don’t like those people. …So I ran! I ran, and I ended up here. And now everyone’s in terrible danger, all because of me! I’m afraid the only thing left is to be thrown into the sea.

LARRY: Aw, you don’t have to do that! We got a plank! You can just walk off!

JONAH: Yes… thank you. You’re too kind.

     No, that last part wasn’t from Scripture. Anyway, Jonah jumps overboard, the storm subsides, and a huge whale eats Jonah. (Oh, and Khalil joins him.) Inside the whale, angels appear to Jonah and help him decide to go to Nineveh. After three days, the whale spits him out, and Jonah goes to Nineveh and tells them to repent. Yet in his last scene, Jonah goes up on a mountain so he can see all of Nineveh being destroyed. Khalil joins him and eventually tells him angrily:

KHALIL: Why are you here now instead of back in the belly of that whale? Because God is compassionate! He wanted to help you. And because He is merciful, He gave you a second chance.

JONAH: Oh, yes! And I’m very grateful—

KHALIL: Has it ever occurred to you that maybe God loves everybody, not just you? That maybe He wants to give everyone a second chance?

JONAH: Um… well…

KHALIL: He saw that those people needed help—that they didn’t know right from wrong. And He wanted to help them! And that is why He sent you! And when you told them what they were doing wrong, they said they were sorry. They put down their mackerels and their halibuts—

     Oh yeah, I should mention this. In this kids’ version of the story of Jonah, the way that Ninevites sin is by hitting each other with fish. But not anymore.

KHALIL: …And they asked God for a second chance. And by golly, He gave them one! Don’t you see? God wants to give everyone a second chance… and so should we.

     In the end, the vegetables hearing the story learn that their arguing was wrong, and they need to show mercy to those who have done them wrong.

     Big Idea Productions was run by Christians (I say “was” because I think they went bankrupt a few years back; now “VeggieTales” is owned by someone else), and their first movie is explicitly Christian. It takes a Christian moral from Scripture and makes it relevant, in this case specifically for children. However, very rarely do Christian filmmakers take a story straight from Scripture, like the story of Jonah, and present it not only straightforwardly, but also with a comic twist.

     But again, “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie” may be a little too straightforward. Khalil’s monologue at the end of the film is another instance where the dialogue seems to come straight from a sermon. But after Jonah’s story is done, and the film focuses on the other vegetables again, the Pirates tell them: “The question, my friends, is not, What did Jonah learn? The question is, What did you learn?”

     Matthew 11:15: “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” 

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