VeggieTales provide a lesson -- and a laugh

Bible-based videos mix animation, fun to teach children

July 25, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A tomato, a cucumber and an asparagus stalk.

Throw in a little vinaigrette, and it sounds like the makings of a summer salad.

But these aren't your garden-variety vegetables. They're the stars of "VeggieTales," a series of child-oriented animated videos with Christian themes that have become one of the hottest entries in the market.

The videos star a tomato named Bob, the serious and cerebral one; a bumbling, but lovable cucumber who answers to Larry and a naive waif of an asparagus they call Asparagus Jr. These videos are unlike anything you may have seen in Vacation Bible School -- the animation is state-of-the-art, the humor is wry, appealing to children and their parents, and they feature upbeat, toe-tapping bluesy tunes on the soundtrack.

"I think the major appeal is the fact that it takes the Scripture and it makes it interesting by adding humor. And it appeals to all ages," said Johnny Smith, manager of the Baptist Book Store in Overlea, which threw a "VeggieTales" release party yesterday for the 11th video in the series, "Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed," featuring popcorn, video previews and costumed characters.

Jasmine Berger, 7, of Hamilton, said she likes Larry the best because he's "so silly."

Her father, Jeff Berger, said his daughter will break into a VeggieTales tune at the slightest provocation.

"What's the one you sing at night?" he asked her.

"God is bigger than the boogie man," she sings from a Bob and Larry video. "He's bigger than Godzilla or the monsters on TV."

"If she has a nightmare, that's what we sing together," he said.

Clergical approval

Pastors, its seems, like them too.

"My kids have them all. The `VeggieTales' CD is always in the van," said the Rev. Steve Bickel, a pastor of Grace Community Church in Perry Hall. "As a matter of fact, at family functions, something that's said will trigger something from the movie and the kids will break out in song."

"They just have a whole host of things they tackle, from materialism to forgiveness to being good friends and neighbors and what that means biblically," he said.

The marketplace has responded. You won't just find "VeggieTales" videos in Christian bookstores, but in WalMart and Target stores as well. The videos sold their first million in 1997; last year, they sold 5 million, and last month sales hit the 10 million mark.

"VeggieTales" are the creation of Phil Vischer, who started as a puppeteer at the St. Paul Bible College near Minneapolis, Minn., and after graduation went onto computer animation.

He joined with a fellow alumnus, Mike Nawrocki, in forming Big Idea Productions in 1993. He had the idea of creating characters for a biblically based video, and at first considered using candy bars. But he thought better of it when he anticipated the ire of parents who might think he was encouraging their children to love sweets.

He hit on vegetables because they were easy to animate. "When Paul Vischer and Mike Nawrocki were creating the series, the computer animation software and hardware was relatively limited," said Ben Howard, Big Time's vice president of sales and marketing. "It could not handle hair, arms and legs very well. They had to come up with something that didn't have those things."

Enter the vegetables, who had no limbs and got around by bouncing.

Actually, in creating Bob and Larry, Vischer and Nawrocki were creating their alter egos and actually provide the voices for the characters.

"The personalities of Bob and Larry are very similar to the personalities of Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki. Bob is the more serious, more studious, sometimes cranky leader. Larry is the whimsical, funny, silly, getting-himself-in-trouble member of the duo," Howard said.

Monty Python fan

An admitted fan of the British comedy troupe Monty Python, Vischer takes an irreverent approach to retelling Bible stories. In "Rack, Shack & Benny," the fourth "VeggieTale" video, he recasts the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who refused to worship an idol and were thrown into a blazing furnace in the Book of Daniel but were delivered from harm by God.

In Vischer's version, the evil King Nebuchadnezzar becomes unscrupulous toy maker Nebby K. Nezzer, who runs a chocolate bunny assembly line and lets workers Rack, Shack and Benny eat as many bunnies as they want. When Nezzer builds a 90-foot bunny and orders his workers to worship it, the trio refuse, and they face a fiery demise until they are rescued by an unexpected ally.

Biblical passage

In the latest release, "Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed," Larry takes the identity of his superhero alter ego, Larry-Boy, a masked avenger who has bathroom plungers for ears. A nasty weed starts a rumor that Larry-Boy's butler Alfred is a robot and the town of Bumblyburg nearly turns on him until sanity prevails.

The message at the end is clear: Rumors are bad and they hurt people. God wants us to spread nice words. To drive home the biblical lesson, there is a passage from the Book of Proverbs: "Reckless words pierce like a sword. But the tongues of the wise bring healing."

It is those deeper truths that parents like Marie Sprause hope the VeggieTales videos communicate to their children.

"If we can lead them to Jesus through a vegetable," she said, "I say `Go for it.' "

Pub Date: 7/25/99

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