Finding God in a Pickle

  • There's nothing wrong with the Old Testament story of Esther — strong narrative, cool heroine. But that it should become the No. 1-selling children's video in America as reinterpreted by wisecracking vegetables is a little discombobulating. We are, after all, talking about kids' least-favorite food group. And the Bible. But that sales spike was no freak occurrence. VeggieTales, a video series populated by moralizing computer-animated vegetables, is America's best-selling direct-to-video series, having sprouted 28.5 million tapes since 1993.

    It doesn't stop there. A VeggieTales book imprint was launched this month, the first VeggieTales computer game will appear in September, and the mouthy little vegetables are currently doing the last few performances of a stage show that has been touring for six months. There have been two spin-off series: Larry Boy and Penguins 3-2-1, and this summer about a million kids will attend VeggieTales church camps, where they will learn about Jonah and the whale. This should prime them nicely for Jonah: a VeggieTales Movie, which is slated to hit more than a thousand movie screens in the fall. It is being distributed by Artisan, the company behind such nonbiblical epics as Van Wilder and The Blair Witch Project.

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    Although the series is based on sacred texts, the popularity of the videos rests largely on their irreverence. The parable of the Good Samaritan is recast with vegetables that wear shoes on their heads as the enemies of those that wear pots. Instead of David and Goliath, an asparagus fights a gigantic pickle. There are overt Monty Python references. When the videos first started appearing in Christian bookstores, college students working there on summer break were their biggest champions, playing them endlessly on the store monitors.

    But the irreverence has limits. "We will not portray Jesus as a vegetable," says Phil Vischer, 35, the Billy Graham-Bill Gates hybrid who made the first video in 1993 with fellow Bible-college dropout Mike Nawrocki. ("We failed chapel," Vischer says, because they were always up late the night before writing puppet skits.) Raised on a cultural diet of church and MTV, they wanted to create something that combined family and production values. They came up with an animated video based on the story of Daniel, Where's God When I'm S-Scared? It sold almost exclusively in Christian bookstores, but now more than half of VeggieTales' sales come from such temples to Mammon as Wal-Mart and Target.

    Where's God When I'm S-Scared? was released two years before Toy Story, making it the first fully computer-animated movie on the market. Nineteen VeggieTales videos have followed. Technologically, they are ingenious rather than astounding. One of the reasons Vischer chose vegetables was that they didn't need arms, legs, hair or clothes, making the animation process much simpler. Initially he created a candy bar with eyes, "but my wife walked by and said, 'Moms are going to be mad if you make their kids fall in love with candy bars,'" he says. He moved the eyes to a cucumber and begat Larry.

    Vischer's aims are no less unlikely than his success. He wants VeggieTales' parent company, Big Idea, to be the new Disney — that is, the go-to company for family entertainment. "When people get their Game Cube or X Box, their first question should be 'Hey, I wonder if Big Idea has a game for us?'" he says. And while the company's products are not above blame — one villainous character is an ill-conceived Latino stereotype — Vischer wants his products to celebrate the benevolent. "There's so little media that makes a parent's job easier," Vischer says. "It's not that the big media companies are immoral, they're amoral. We want to offset that amorality."

    Pixar and Disney can't possibly be losing sleep over Jonah, but that's not the fight the loopy legumes care about. If Beckett and Ionesco used absurdity to posit that there is no God, VeggieTales uses it to suggest there is one. Some of the plot twists are aimed squarely at adults: in one video, Nebby K. Nezzer builds a 90-ft. chocolate bunny everyone must worship. The evangelism is also leavened with very silly songs (like The Yodeling Veterinarian of the Alps). These resemble hymns as much as macaroni and cheese resembles wheat. As the Good Book sort of says: children cannot live on veggies alone.