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Movie Review

An Old Testament Tale Gets a Fresh, Crisp Retelling

The kids' video series called VeggieTales has its first big-screen release in a smart and funny version of the story of Jonah.


Go ahead, blame it on Mr. Potato Head if you must, but having vegetables dress up and act like humans has always been hard to resist. When irreverent edibles tell sly jokes and go by names like Archibald Asparagus and Bob the Tomato, they can get away with almost anything. Even teaching kids to do the right thing.

The VeggieTales series of tapes has been doing just that since 1993, selling so many units (more than 30 million) that it has become this country's top-selling direct-to-video series. Yes, the tales present lessons about ethical behavior, but they insist on being smart and funny at the same time. Says Phil Vischer, who writes and directs along with Mike Nawrocki, "We've always described VeggieTales as what might happen if Monty Python took over Hebrew or Sunday school."

Now we have "Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie," and what a pleasant surprise it is. With Vischer and Nawrocki, both Bible college dropouts, having a hand in the film's numerous songs and doing many of the vegetables' voices, this animated retelling of the familiar Old Testament story is playful, high-spirited and unmistakably amusing. It's nice to see that a sense of humor and a sense of values don't inevitably have to cancel each other out.

Using bright computer-generated visuals, "Jonah" surrounds its biblical tale with a modern framing story. A VW bus is spied on a lonely country road, taking four eager children and two supervising adults--if you can call Bob the Tomato and Dad Asparagus adults--to a sold-out concert by the super-popular rock star Twippo.

But because Dad Asparagus is enthusiastically playing the guitar and hitting Bob the Tomato with the neck instead of reading the map, the gang gets lost and ends up at a strange seafood restaurant, where their bickering and general unhappiness catch the attention of a mysterious nautical trio who call themselves the Pirates Who Don't Do Anything.

Pointing to the items "compassion" and "mercy" on the menu (I said it was a strange restaurant), the Pirates decide to teach the kids what those words mean by recalling one time, a long time ago, when "we did one thing with one guy." A guy named Jonah.

Expanding with great glee on the biblical tale, "Jonah" gives its protagonist a back story as a working prophet who took enormous pride in the prestige that went with delivering messages from God to his neighbors in Joppa. Wearing a monocle, speaking with a posh British accent and riding around on a camel named Reginald, Jonah shows off in the song "Message From the Lord," where the good word from the deity is distilled to a syncopated "Do not fight, do not cheat, wash your hands before your feet."

But when the Lord sends Jonah to Nineveh, the prophet balks. "You don't know what it's like there," he protests to God about a foreign city so mean and ornery that the residents slap one another with fish at the slightest provocation. He hires those pirates, who break a lifelong dedication to doing nothing to take him as far away from Nineveh as he can get.

On the pirates' ship, Jonah runs into an affable creature named Khalil, who says, "My mother was a caterpillar and my father was a worm, but I'm OK with that now." A traveling salesman who religiously listens to motivational tapes, Khalil views becoming Jonah's "traveling buddy" as a great opportunity to sell licensed merchandise. "You are huge, you are a celebrity," he tells the prophet. "You give the message, I sell the plush toys."

When that celebrated storm comes up, a game of Go Fish is called for to determine who to cast into the sea. In goes Jonah, along with a rubber ducky and Khalil, who he insists on calling Carlisle. Inside the belly of the beast, they come across a massive gospel choir that delivers the message of the film: "The Lord is the God of second chances, he can rescue you from desperate circumstances."

Writer-directors Vischer and Nawrocki enjoy creating characters with accents (French-flavored peas and a Scottish travel agent among them), and lace "Jonah" with modern references to snack foods and adult jokes about balanced stock portfolios.

Bright to the end, "Jonah" closes with a "No vegetable was harmed in the making of this film" disclaimer and a closing "The Credit Song," which bemoans the fact that songs under the credits never have anything to do with the movie just seen. Even atheists can smile at that one, and, to a surprising extent, at the rest of "Jonah" as well.

*MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: suitable for all audiences.

'Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie'

FHE Pictures presents a Big Idea Productions production, released by Artisan Entertainment. Directors Phil Vischer & Mike Nawrocki. Producer Ameake Owens. Executive producers Phil Vischer, Terry Botwick, Dan Philips. Screenplay Phil Vischer & Mike Nawrocki. Supervising editor John Wahba. Music Kurt Heinecke & Phil Vischer. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.

In general release.

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