Veggie-Tales: Part of a Healthy Media Diet for Kids

BARBARA NICOLOSI

The Greek word for entertainment literally means "to inform with delight." Another definition might just be Veggie-Tales. In a kids' media landscape spotted with insipid purple dinosaurs and cynical Bart Simpson clones, the Veggie-Tales are a fresh, fun, and spiritually healthy alternative.


Produced by Chicago-based Big Idea Productions, in the last two years the Veggie-Tales have outpaced both Pokemon and Blue's Clues to become the most popular children's video series in North America. Originally distributed through mail-order and then through Christian bookstores, Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato now spread their unique retellings of Old Testament stories through major retailers including Wal-Mart. Along with an extensive line of ancillary merchandise — I admit I have a stuffed Larry on my desk — the first Veggie-Tales feature-length project is currently in production, making for yet another milestone for the video franchise. Based on the adventures of Jonah and the whale, the film will be in theaters in 2002.

Having begun in creator Phil Vischer's garage in a Chicago suburb, the Veggie-Tales have snow-balled in popularity in the last three years completely due to consumer word of mouth. This is extraordinary because the concept of Veggie-Tales is not an easy sell. Every time I suggest the video series to parents I encounter the same doubtful wince. "A talking asparagus, huh?" Even Vischer introduces himself with a grin and the shrug, "I'm the guy who tells Bible stories with vegetables." The reason people are willing to talk up the adventures of Larry and Bob comes down to the simple fact that the product here is so very good. According to Vischer, "There is no better way to attract consumer loyalty than by really helping parents parent."

So let's get the big issue out of the way early on: What is the correlative relationship between various kinds of produce, and theological truth? Or in other words, why vegetables? The original proto-type of the Veggie-Tales was actually a candy bar, but Vischer's wife objected. "No Mom is going to want her kids to fall in love with animated candy." So Vischer and his small group of family and collaborators asked themselves what kind of inanimate objects would be easy to animate using 3-D technology, and thoroughly parent-friendly. The answer? Vegetables.

Veggie-Tales humor can best be described as the raising of silliness to an art form. The laughs hearken back to the best kind of early TV and radio comedy — patently absurd situations and great delivery by a group of lovable, vulnerable characters. Larry and Bob have been described as the organic version of Abbott and Costello. The highlight of every Veggie-Tales video is the catchy tunes that accompany the stories, or as the videos proclaim, "That portion of the video in which Larry sings a silly song." Songs like "God is Bigger than The Boogyman" and "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything" are fun for kids and parents, but also pack important messages.

We really need good alternatives in kids' media. I was taken aback recently to hear my two year-old nephew calling another child a "dumb baby." When I asked his Mom, my sister, where he got the expression, she shrugged, "They're always saying it on Rugrats. We're not watching that show anymore." Unfortunately, many kids' shows build loyalty from children by creating a "kids only" kind of world in which adults are irrelevant and often clueless. The dramatic conflict generally comes from setting the characters up against bullies or just plain mean people. Too often the humor of these shows is based in a kind of cynicism that doesn't naturally belong in early childhood. One of the reasons the Veggie-Tales are so good is that the series speaks to children as children and not as though they are grown-ups trapped in children's bodies. I would much rather have my little nephew sing to me that "Everybody has a waterbuffalo" than hear him plotting in the Machiavellian mode of Rugrats.

Artfully produced, every Veggie-Tales video interweaves a child's real world dilemmas — being scared of the dark, eating a balanced diet and watching too much TV — with fables derived from the adventures of Old Testament characters. Maintaining the franchise's commitment to deliver a Biblical world-view has called for several acts of faith by Big Idea Productions. When the Veggie-Tales franchise was in its infancy, several secular distributors stipulated that they would only handle the series if the religious content was dropped. Fortunately, Vischer held his ground and trusted that his series would find an audience because of their overall excellence and originality.

The Biblical content in the videos is present without being overbearing. The point with Larry, Bob and friends is not to evangelize kids, but rather to provide them with entertainment in which God is in the framework. Wearied by "Christian" media productions that are either badly produced or else insultingly obtuse, I experienced the Veggie-Tales with a wave of amazement and delight. We need much more of this kind of production.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Barbara Nicolosi. "Veggie-Tales: Part of a Healthy Media Diet for Kids." Liguorian (November 2001).

This article reprinted with permission from Liguorian, One Liguori Drive, Liguori, MO 63057.

Liguorian is a general interest Catholic magazine written and edited for Catholics of all ages. Its purpose is to help readers better understand the gospel and Church teaching and to show how these teachings apply to life and the problems confronting them as members of families, the Church, and society.

THE AUTHOR

Barbara Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood. You may email her at Actone2000@aol.com.

Copyright 2001 Liguorian


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