Aimed squarely at 5- to- 11-year-olds but with an ageless appeal sure to connect with teenagers and adults as well, VeggieTales’ first feature-length adventure, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, serves up equal parts biblical truth and savvy wit. Riding on the crest of a Big Idea Productions franchise responsible for selling 25 million children videos, Bob, Larry and a virtual salad bar full of talking vegetables retell the story of the reluctant Old Testament prophet who fights God’s command to take His message of repentance to a heathen city.
The film opens with Bob the Tomato driving a VW bus full of veggies to a Twippo concert (think of Elvis singing "The Wheels on the Bus"). But a bragging Laura Carrot—who’s won a backstage pass to meet Twippo—and a guitar-flailing Archibald Asparagus send the crew into an out-of-control spin-out that ends with a near-death experience (and a flat tire), stranding the concert-going troupe. Intending to call a tow truck, an angry Bob leads his charges into a local restaurant where they meet The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything. Quickly realizing that the disgruntled group needs a lesson in compassion, The Pirates recount the story of a obstinate prophet they met many years ago named Jonah, a motivational tape-listening worm named Khalil (remember Jonah 4:7?) and a city full of fish-slapping Ninevites.
positive elements: Pretty much everything. Not only will families leave theaters giggling, they’ll also be primed for some God-centered conversation about compassion, forgiveness, mercy and second chances. If you have little ones (or even teenagers), consider sitting down with them over ice cream or a Coke and talking through the following questions:
Has there ever been a time when you’ve known what God wants you to do, but, like Jonah, you’ve said NO!
Think about Junior, Bob and Jonah for a second. They were all mad at others for bad things they’d done and didn’t want to forgive them. Is there anyone you’re mad at and don’t want to forgive? What do you think God would want you to do? Remember Khalil’s speech to Jonah when the plant he’s using for shelter dies. (Read Matthew 5:43-47.)
Think about Jonah’s attitude when he first tried to get into Ninevah and was turned away by the guards. Would you say he had a good attitude or a bad attitude? What does your attitude have to do with obeying God? (Read 2 Kings 23:3 and 1 Chronicles 29:17a.)
Why didn’t Jonah want God to forgive the Ninevites? What does it tell you about God that He forgave evil, lawless people? What can you learn from that? (Read Romans 3:10-18 and Ephesians 2:11-13.)
spiritual content: Again, everything. This is, after all, a Bible story! One of Jonah’s early songs details various moral and ceremonial tenets of the Mosaic law, including the weaving of tassels on clothing, not eating various creatures and ritual hand washing. Another scene shows Jonah receiving his famous instruction to preach to Ninevah. While running from God, he hears God’s voice asking him where he’s going. During the storm, The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything tell Khalil and Jonah to "pray to your God." After Jonah is tossed into the drink, the Pirates themselves pray. Angels appear to Jonah when he’s in the fish’s belly and sing a song of encouragement. The Ninevites say they worship the same "great fish" that swallowed Jonah and he uses the opportunity to deliver God’s message. When Jonah throws a fit after his sheltering plant dies, Khalil rebukes him, giving a speech about the scope of God’s love. After the Pirates conclude the story, Bob and his cadre likewise forgive one another for their various wrongs.
violent content: Standard VeggieTales slapstick. A mother porcupine shoots the VW bus’ tire with a quill, which sends it into a skid. After the crash, the porcupine shoots Bob as well (he’s not seriously hurt). As part of their immoral behavior, the Ninevites smack people with fish. During a narration sequence, Ninevah is obliterated by fire from heaven. A rowdy song-and-dance routine results in a mailman crashing into a cart and his letters flying everywhere. When Jonah confesses to the Pirates that he’s fleeing from God, they make him walk the plank. One scene that might frighten young children involves the shadow of a massive whale swimming beneath Jonah in Jaws-like fashion. (The rest of the whale’s actions fetch only laughs, not whimpers.) Trying to stop the whale from eating Jonah, the Pirates shoot sports equipment at it. While in Ninevah, Jonah gets knocked out by a fish-wielding guard. He’s later threatened with "The Slap of No Return" (e.g., being crushed by a huge fish statue). The Ninevites demonstrate "The Slap" on an inanimate gourd, but refrain from smashing any ambulatory veggies.
crude or profane language: None.
drug and alcohol content: Aside from some sly sipping of root beer, none. In one song, Jonah’s message to the Israelites includes the line, "Don’t do drugs."
conclusion: Watching Jonah, I found myself diving into a familiar scriptural account and being challenged by it anew. But I should note that while I found the exercise in combining flights of animated fantasy with the bedrock of the Bible engaging, the creative license taken with this story could raise questions for some young children. For example, Jonah initially tries to flee from God’s command via cruise line. Instead of casting lots to determine who caused the Divinely ordained storm, the Pirates, Jonah and Khalil play a fierce game of "Go Fish." And obviously, Ninevah was never indicted by God for smacking people with sea bass. Director Phil Vischer explains the method to the madness this way: "We find what is sacred [in the biblical account] and everything else is up for grabs. There’s nothing added that’s contrary to the Bible, but we add all sorts of goofiness." My advice? Take the time to compare the real Jonah with the Veggie variety. That will help children to not conflate the two. Both the movie and the study afterward should be a whale of a good time for everyone.
It’s not just the exploration of biblical truth, though, that makes me a big fan of Jonah. It’s also because of its snappy animation, quirky—and familiar—veggie characters, entertaining story lines and snazzy musical numbers unpredictable enough to be cool to even a few teenagers. Jonah’s writing and production value stand head-and-shoulders above the crowd. For example, each and every song in this first Veggie movie easily competes with A-list Disney fare. Such professionalism deserves a lot of praise. Jonah is a film that will please families not only with its content, but with its quality as well.