Judge Dan Mancini is pretty sure that tomatoes are a fruit.
A lesson in helping others.
VeggieTales is a computer-animated direct-to-video Christian series that began in 1993. Uptight Bob the Tomato (voiced by series co-creator Phil Vischer) and easy-going Larry the Cucumber (co-creator Mike Nawrocki) lead a cast of talking vegetables through tales (usually but not always re-enactments of Bible stories) that drive home a moral point raised by a dilemma described in a letter from a fictional viewer read at the beginning of each episode. During a brief intermission in the middle of each episode, Larry performs a Silly Song that is usually musically and lyrically cleverer than it has a right to be. Each show is wrapped up with a return to the framing device in which Bob and Larry relate the story back to the viewer's letter and present a relevant Bible verse via their seemingly sentient desktop computer, Qwerty. The end.
Tomato Sawyer and Huckleberry Larry's Big River Rescue is the 36th episode in the series.
Facts of the Case
A letter from Zachary Alexander asking about how he should treat a boy who gets picked on by the other kids at school kicks off the story of Tomato Sawyer (Bob the Tomato) and Huckleberry Larry (Larry the Cucumber) as told by Clark Wayne, a vegetable narrator with a suspicious resemblance to a certain famed American author with a bushy mustache and penchant for white suits.
Tom and Huck are homesteaders who are three days shy of having occupied their land long enough for the government to grant them ownership. Once they own their plot, Huck plans to open Jerkyland (a turkey jerky-themed amusement park). Tom wants to start a tax preparation business (even though the story is set in 1904, nine years before the income tax was established). Their plans are thrown for a loop when they meet Big Jim, a none-too-bright gourd and former child singer on the lam. Big Jim only wants to make it up the Mississippi to St. Louis so he can find his Mama and take up singing with her again. But he's being pursued by lumber camp owner (and pickle) Mr. Dooley, to whom he was indentured before making a break for freedom. The potential cost of helping Big Jim is too high for Tom, but Huckleberry Larry is determined to help his new friend no matter what.
Rule #1: I hate modern children's programming, even though (or maybe because) I'm a parent. Most of it is patronizing, repetitive pap from the clinical minds of child development experts instead of people who know how to tell a joke or write a good story (remember when adults didn't worry about the potential psychological dangers of a child seeing a cartoon anvil dropped on the head of a cartoon coyote? Ah, the good old days).
Rule #2: I despise Christian entertainment, even though (or maybe because) I'm a Christian. I especially don't like the stuff that provides sanitized, Jesus-ized imitations of secular entertainments in the name of insulating good, moral people from the evils of the world (You dig Rage Against the Machine? Check out this poor imitation that replaces all the swear words with shallow platitudes about Jesus. I'll pass, thanks).
VeggieTales is the exception that proves both rules. Not only is it a top-notch kids' show, it's Christian entertainment without the inelegant, imitative, isolationist weirdness. It's smart, funny, and incredibly well-made.
Big River Rescue is one of the better episodes I've seen. Eschewing a Bible story in favor of one of the great classics of American literature, the show's writers did a fine job of capturing the heart and major beats of Twain's novel (the Duke and the Dauphin are even included). Most impressively, they succeed in separating slavery from its 19th-century American context for easier digestion by young children without abandoning the idea altogether or undercutting its thematic importance to the story. Plenty of slapstick and goofiness (including the Silly Song, "The Biscuit of Zazzamarandabo," performed by Larry and Archibald Asparagus) are guaranteed to captivate wee ones for the show's entire 50 minutes. If you're a parent, rest assured that jokes about taxes, strawberry smoothies, the difference between vinyl LPs and MP3 players, and the unspoken literary contract that narrators aren't to get involved in the stories they tell will entertain you as well.
In terms of the quality of the animation, VeggieTales has always been at the top end of television cartoons. It doesn't match a Pixar flick, but expecting as much would be unreasonable. Big River Rescue blows a TV contemporary like Disney Playhouse's computer-animated Mickey Mouse Clubhouse out of the water. If the folks at Big Idea can trounce the mouse, you know they're doing something right. Colors are bold, textures are carefully rendered, and the character's faces and movements are pliable and expressive. All of it looks excellent on this DVD.
A healthy supply of extras is divided into three separate sections. Under "Behind the Scenes" you'll find "Making Big River Rescue," an eight-minute making-of featurette; "Writing a Biscuit Silly Song," a featurette about the writing of "The Biscuit of Zazzamarandabo" that runs just shy of four minutes; an audio commentary by director Brian K. Roberts and producer J. Chris Wall; and a 30-second featurette that shows off some of the preliminary artwork for the show.
A "Fun and Games" section contains a video trivia game; a sing along version of "The Biscuit of Zazzamarandabo"; an interactive storybook about the Pirates Who Don't Do Anything called "Helpers are Heroes" that children can opt to have read to them or read own their own; a word puzzle game; and a How to Draw section that features Big Idea artists giving a step-by-step demonstration of drawing Huck, Tom, and Little Jimmy.
A "Parents" menu offers a three-minute making-of geared more toward adults (in the sense that they talk about the themes of Twain's novel) than the featurette under the "Behind the Scenes" menu; a family activity that involves helping other people; a discussion guide; and DVD-ROM features like desktop wallpapers, coloring and connect-the-dots pages, and a link to the Big Idea web site.
Finally, there are previews for seven other Big Idea productions.
VeggieTales succeeds because of the quality of both its writing and animation. It's not just good religious entertainment or good children's entertainment, it's good entertainment.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Big Idea
• Making Big River Rescue
Review content copyright © 2008 Dan Mancini; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.