Big Idea // 2002 // 82 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // March 30th, 2011
I am not going to Ninevah!
Given that the book of Jonah is one of the most concise, literarily elegant, thematically powerful, and theologically rich pieces of writing in the Bible, an animated feature film adaptation starring anthropomorphic vegetables was probably inevitable, right?
Waylaid during their trip to a Twippo concert, Bob the Tomato and a group of vegetable children end up at a seafood restaurant (do vegetables eat fish?) where they meet a group of bumbling but good-natured seafarers called the Pirates Who Don't Do Anything. In an attempt to ease the strife between the members of Bob's group, the pirates tell an ancient tale about mercy and compassion.
Jonah the Israelite prophet (a monocle-wearing asparagus) receives a message from God that he is to go to the Assyrian city of Ninevah -- whose mean-spirited citizens like to slap one another in the face with dead fish -- with the message that they need to "stop it" or God will destroy the city. But Jonah hates the Ninevites, so he opts to hop on a boat (commanded by the Pirates Who Don't Do Anything) that is sailing in the opposite direction to Tarshish. During the voyage, Jonah meets a wisecracking caterpillar named Khalil. Unable to escape the long arm of God, the ship encounters a violent storm. When the pirates realize (via a game of Go Fish) that Jonah is the source of their trouble, they reluctantly decide to toss him overboard, along with Khalil. The duo is promptly swallowed by a divinely-appointed whale, and spit out on dry land three days later. Chastened by God but still disappointed by his mission, Jonah grudgingly delivers his message to the Ninevites and then sits on the outskirts of the city, angry that God prefers mercy over vengeance.
Meanwhile, back at the seafood restaurant, the young vegetables, having learned from Jonah's mistakes, forgive each other and make nice.
The brainchild of writer-directors Mike Nawrocki and Phil Vischer, VeggieTales is a straight-to-video Christian kids show featuring computer-animated vegetables playing out morality tales (often Bible-based), engaging in a little slapstick, and singing the occasional silly song. It's a surprisingly good show -- far superior to most of what passes for children's entertainment these days. A decade after VeggieTales launched in 1993, Nawrocki, Vischer, and the rest of the gang at Big Idea Productions set out to make a feature film adaptation of the show. Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie was the result.
Though VeggieTales wears its Christian worldview on its sleeve, individual episodes tend to alternate between adaptations of Bible stories and parodies of popular culture (the folks at Big Idea have cleverly spoofed everything from Batman and Indiana Jones, to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wizard of Oz). Whether an episode is overtly religious or mostly secular, VeggieTales always emphasize baseline values such as compassion, empathy, and forgiveness that appeal to Christian and non-Christian parents alike (the fact that the shows are actually funny, the characters memorable, and the musical numbers clever and rarely derivative has also helped the show appeal to those outside the American Protestant subculture at which it is primarily targeted). That said, Big Idea's decision to adapt a Bible story (albeit one of the most well-known Bible stories) as their first venture into feature filmmaking was a bold one. What's even more impressive is that Jonah is a surprisingly subtle and intelligent adaptation of the text. Nawrocki and Vischer understood that the story isn't about a guy who gets swallowed by a giant fish, but a religious leader who becomes enraged by idea that God's mercy might extend to group of people that he despises. Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie even maintains the text's ambiguous ending as Jonah sits sullen and angry at God because he's been denied the pleasure of witnessing 150,000 people incinerated in a sudden display of divine wrath. It's incredibly ballsy, considering the flick is ostensibly a cartoon for little kids, yet the story is delivered in a way that the baseline message is clear even to the youngest of viewers: People are worthy of our compassion...even people we don't like.
Taking into account that the show debuted in the early '90s (on VHS, no less), VeggieTales has always been state-of-the-art when it comes to television-grade 3D computer animation. Even so, making the leap to theatrical-feature-quality animation required Big Idea to leverage itself practically to the point of bankruptcy in order to make the necessary upgrades to hardware and software. The downside to the financial risk is that the movie's relatively modest box office returns forced Big Idea into some management restructuring in order to keep the production house afloat. The upside is that, moving forward, they had the technology infrastructure to seriously ramp up the quality of animation in future straight-to-video release. Since Jonah's theatrical run, episodes of VeggieTales have steadily gotten more visually sophisticated -- so much so, in fact, that Jonah (now eight years old) doesn't look nearly as impressive in high definition as I was expecting. The transfer itself -- a straight digital-to-digital affair -- is nearly perfect. The sets and backgrounds are richly detailed and vibrantly colored. It's the characters that disappoint. The shading, subtlety of color, and expressiveness of the characters' eyes and mouths pale in comparison to recently released episodes of the show. Jonah doesn't look back (in fact, it looks quite good), but it's no match for current Big Idea animation, let alone the stuff put out by heavy hitters like Pixar or Dreamworks. The presentation is in the 1.78:1 aspect, in keeping with the original theatrical aspect ratio. Despite any limitations in the aging animation, the 1080p image blows the old DVD release out of the water.
Audio is presented in a pleasantly crisp and punchy DTS-HD Master Audio track in 5.1 surround. The entire soundstage is used creatively -- especially during the seafaring portions of the film.
Chief among the extras is a trio of feature-length audio commentaries. The first is an amiable yet highly detailed track by writer-directors Mike Nawrocki and Phil Vischer; the second is by producer Ameake Owens and animation director Marc Vulcano; and the third is a fun-for-the-kids character track featuring Larry the Cucumber and Mr. Lunt (a gourd).
In addition to the commentaries, there are also some featurettes:
The Studio Process (7:01)
Hosted by producer Ameake Owens, this featurette provides a broad overview of the process of making a 3D computer-animated feature.
Big Idea Tour (12:01)
Phil Vischer leads us on a tour of the cube and server farms in which the movie was made.
Jonah and the Bible (5:30)
Vischer returns to discuss the biblical book of Jonah, and Big Idea's process for translating the story into a tale featuring anthropomorphic vegetables.
Khalil Auditions (3:02)
Set to rough storyboard images of Khalil, this audio reel features different voice options considered for the caterpillar, including imitations of Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson.
There's also a roughly animated music video for a remix version of "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything," a song featured prominently in the movie.
A Bonus Materials option on the Special Features menu offers outtakes, animation progression reels, digital dailies, and a promo reel featuring Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber talking about the film.
Finally, there are two trailers for the film, as well as trailers for a tie-in video game and soundtrack CD.
The set's second disc is a DVD that includes the feature in both widescreen and full screen presentations.
If all children's entertainment was as intelligent, literate, and genuinely funny, yet completely accessible to young ones as Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, it would be a better world indeed.
Review content copyright © 2011 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Big Idea
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Music Video
* DVD Copy