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Fish and ships

Movies | Big Idea's Jonah stays afloat, despite a few theological problems

Issue: "False witnesses?," Oct. 5, 2002

VEGETABLES HAVE LONG BEEN one of the trials of childhood, but thanks to Big Idea's Veggie Tales, kids now hug tomatoes and cucumbers along with teddy bears. Big Idea releases Jonah, the first full-length Veggie Tales movie, in theaters this week. The film provides a lot of fun and does a decent job of presenting divine and human nature, albeit with a few theological caveats.

The movie starts with a harried Bob the Tomato trying desperately to navigate a VW-style van full of vegetables singing kids' songs. They're on the way to hear the popular singer Twippo in concert, but when Laura Carrot and Mr. Asparagus accidentally cause mayhem and two flat tires, the veggies are stuck at a seafood restaurant. There they meet the friendly but shiftless Pirates Who Don't Do Anything. The pirates actually did do something once: They agreed to take a prophet named Jonah to Tarshish. Noting some unforgiving attitudes toward Laura and Mr. Asparagus, the pirates tell Jonah's story to the stranded group, emphasizing the need for mercy and compassion.

Big Idea has wanted to do a full-length theatrical film for a long time, according to Jonah's writer and director Mike Nawrocki. Jonah was originally intended to be a shorter episode, but the story "was begging to be longer." Mr. Nawrocki says of making a full-length movie: "It was three times longer than a typical Veggie Tales, but it was about 10 times more challenging."

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Big Idea has done some short videos in a film-style format, like Larry-Boy and Esther, but the visuals in Jonah had to be more complex because of the larger theater screen. Big Idea put in a lot of extra work on the storywriting phase as well, holding three or four whole-company screenings in order to get feedback. Mr. Nawrocki says, "We really tried to make it a story that would really engage the audience, that would work on all levels-with music, with humor, with message."

Overall, the film works well. The interwoven stories are well-scripted and fast-paced, and the film serves up the wacky humor Veggie Tales is known for. Jonah, an asparagus with monocle and British accent, is surprisingly effective at portraying truths about human nature. He takes issue with God's order to go to Nineveh, asking if God's ever been there and then deciding that He couldn't have been. "A God like You would never go to a place like Nineveh," he announces primly. This Jonah captures the stubborn prophet well, bringing chagrined laughter to those who have spent some time metaphorically in the belly of the whale.

The movie also shows Jonah's lack of mercy. After finally delivering the message, he climbs to a cliff and gazes down on the city. A friend comes by and asks him what he's doing. "It's time to watch God wipe them off the face of the earth," he replies. He pauses and then adds conspiratorially, "I picked a safe distance so we won't get singed."

However, this portrayal of Jonah could do a few things better. The prophet first appears bringing the people of Israel a message from the Lord in musical form. The catchy and well-intentioned song offers injunctions consistent with Scripture, but it also mentions a few pieces of good advice not directly found anywhere in the Bible: "Don't do drugs" and "Stay in school."

As often happens in Veggie Tales, the movie presents a strong message of God's forgiveness and His command to forgive others. However, it softens a bit the crimes being forgiven. While it's clear that the Ninevites do evil, the film asserts that the king of Nineveh didn't know that the things they did were wrong. The movie also takes liberties with the biblical storyline, which Big Idea should have acknowledged in a disclaimer.

Jonah remains an impressive film. It catches the humor and much of the truth in the biblical account, as the talented voice actors switch back and forth from entertaining dialogue to toe-tapping songs.

"I think there's a market out there for films made from a biblical worldview," Mr. Nawrocki said. "And if Jonah can go out and do well and people can see that, that definitely will open the door to other films along the same vein."

-Hannah Eagleson is a World Journalism Institute fellow

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