Our review of VeggieTales: An Easter Carol, published April 15th, 2009, is also available.
A creative, Christian spin on the classic Dickens story
With Good Friday a memory and the big day approaching, factory workers Cavis Appythart (a tomato) and Millward Phelps (a pickle) are looking forward to Easter Sunday and the unveiling of the latest stained glass window in their local church. Only problem is, they have to work, and their clueless boss, Ebenezer Nezzer (an overstuffed zucchini) doesn't appreciate this particular holiday. All this fanatical pew pushing cuts into his bunny-based plastic novelty factory. He wants his mechanical hens to keep laying seasonal offerings right on through the celebration. And he wants Cavis and Millward at the helm. Besides, Ebenezer feels he has right on his side. His late Grandmother told him that Easter means "no death," but he has mistakenly interpreted her words to mean that her beloved egg factory should never close down. Not even on Easter. Even worse, Ebenezer plans on tearing down the church (home to the asparagus Reverend Gilbert and his sick, crippled son Edmund) and the adjoining orphanage to build the highly commercial theme park called Easterland. It will take a visit from a friendly angel named Hope, in the guise of a transformed music box, to show the valueless vegetable why Easter is a time for prayer, not plastic knickknacks. It's a celebration for praising God, not an egg- and candy-carrying rabbit. Will Ebenezer learn his lesson before the surly French peas start tearing down the cathedral? Or are the sanctuary and its accompanying children's home destined to fall under the wrecking ball to facilitate An Easter Carol for Ebenezer?
VeggieTales: An Easter Carol has got to be one of the more inventive faith-based sagas to come out of the entire Big Idea franchise. These Christian cartoon makers have translated Old and New Testament tales of Bible benefice into colorful creations full of innovation and good humor for a few years now. Utilizing the setting and the characters of Cavis Appythart and Millward Phelps (played by Veggie stalwarts Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber—how self-referential) from a companion piece, 2003's A Christmas Star, this take on Dickens' famous holiday fable is magical and moving. Now old Charlie's classic Saturnalia spook story is rote to most people and there have been hundreds of variations on it, from the traditional to the twisted and the sitcom. It's amazing how easily the story swerves off into Easter here, and one has to credit the creators behind Big Idea for finding a way to make this work. Granted, they are one imaginative bunch, able to mix morality, happiness, merchandising, and commitment without ever swaying from their core beliefs. But An Easter Carol represents a real advance for the company, with some of the sequences here (the Plastic Egg factory finale, the musical montage of Jesus' life done in stained glass) measuring right up there with the phantasmogorical magic of Pixar. In many ways, this DVD, along with its Christmas Star bookend, is the culmination of the company's credo. They finally get to handle the single most significant events for true believers with creativity and care.
This is not to say that An Easter Carol is piety perfection. As an entertaining look at the religious significance of Christ's resurrection, it couldn't be better. But some of the voice work causes concern. Ebenezer Nezzer has a very "ethnic" unease to his voice, an obvious unintentional minstrel quality that can be distracting (one understands that the motives here were only pure), and you can often tell that the rest of the cast is creator Phil Vischer with various vocal modulations added onto his voice. And a couple of the songs (Ebenezer's lament over his Grandma for example) sound half-finished, never reaching the Great White Way wonders of other Big Idea productions. But these are minor quibbles when compared to the sheer, surefooted delight one will get from watching this fractured, funny fable. Big Idea loads the image with in-jokes, barely registering gags, and visual significance, and it's fun to seek these secrets out. They also understood how to be witty without resorting to rudeness or the risquéé, meaning that adults can safely let even their youngest children watch this presentation without worrying about the content within. And if they gave it a chance themselves, they would find An Easter Carol clever, cute, and highly entertaining. While everyone always laments the commercialization of Christmas, it's interesting how few challenge the utter desecration of Easter. It's easy to envision how a jolly old elf presenting gifts can represent a symbol of God's love for the world. But a rabbit dropping eggs is a little too much. Thanks to Big Idea and An Easter Carol, this underrepresented and frequently disrespected holiday gets a media-oriented message that measures up to the occasion.
Understanding that every Big Idea release is important to its customers, the creators of the Easter Carol DVD provide exceptional audio and video and overload the disc with bonus features. Computer animation was born for the digital domain, and Carol looks fantastic: crisp, clean, and popping with vibrant colors. The details are rich, and the action is smooth and fluid. Sonically, VeggieTales tend to suffer from over-reliance on the high end since, as stated before, many of the voices are sped up or enhanced. On An Easter Carol, the atmospheric 5.1 Dolby Digital mix does a very nice job of mellowing the manic qualities, and the channels are utilized to enhance certain set pieces (like the plastic egg factory). But it's the bonuses that will literally blow you away. There are two behind-the-scenes featurettes (one on the film itself, one on making stained glass), dozens of preview trailers (and Big Idea has some awesome ads for their films), storyboards, sketch ideas, progression reels (following the creation of scenes and shots), interactive storybooks, games, trivia, sing-alongs, and some appealing DVD-ROM content. There's enough stuff here to keep the brood occupied for hours, and parents will celebrate the plain spoken, easy-to-understand instructions for activities, discussions, and all-around enjoyment.
For the digital devotees, we also get a full-length commentary by creators Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki. Jovial, genuine, and filled with great stories, these clever gents give a nice overview of how this movie came to be, the pitfalls of taking on classic literature, and the troubles with keeping the Messiah a non-vegetable (pursuant to corporate mandates and policy!). They often talk over each other, making understanding a little difficult, but overall, this is witty, wistful fun. Just like the product they create. Because of their pro-Christian agenda, Big Idea and the VeggieTales always seem like the cult members (if they would forgive the nomenclature) of the family-fun business. And that's too bad. Far more pleasurable than most of Disney's direct-to-video vileness and outshining the upstart attempts by other major studios to market to the kinfolk, this clever, creative series deserves a wider audience. While it's true that religion is a deeply personal issue, entertainment is not. And VeggieTales: An Easter Carol really proves this.
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