- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 5, 2002

The star is an asparagus. His buddies include a tomato and a cucumber. And they are featured in a movie based on the biblical tale of Jonah, the guy who got swallowed by a whale.
What's the big idea? At Big Idea Productions, it's that childrens' entertainment can teach children a thing or two about morality and religious faith yet still trigger a belly laugh or two.
The independent studio from suburban Chicago is about to find out if mainstream moviegoing audiences agree. Its first feature-length film, "Jonah A VeggieTales Movie," was to open yesterday.
Big Idea has put $14 million into the movie, making it a gamble even though the company has sold nearly 30 million of the startlingly successful "VeggieTales" animated videos over the past nine years.
"Jonah" recycles the biblical book into a fishy story-within-a-story starring Archibald Asparagus (voiced with a British accent by Big Idea founder Phil Vischer) in the title role, alongside Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber and others from Big Idea's improbable garden of animated fruits and vegetables. ("No vegetables were harmed in the making of this film," viewers are assured.)
As with the home videos, Mom, Dad, and other viewers above VeggieTales' target ages of 3 to 8 will be amused by knowing cultural references: "Jaws" and "Lawrence of Arabia" sneak into the film, as do snack foods, a pop singer and audiotapes by a motivational speaker ("You are powerful and attractive. You do not run from your problems.").
There are also silly ditties (the best one, "The Credits Song," comes at the end of the credits) and goofy gags. When the prophet Jonah enters town to preach God's law, fast-food stands that offer pork, bats and bugs instantly turn kosher and start selling bagels and coffee.
In this quintessentially Jewish story, the good guy (who was scripted prior to the September 11 attacks) is Khalil, a vaguely Muslim traveling salesman who's half caterpillar, half worm.
Actually, either Muslims or Jews would find VeggieTales productions wholesome rather than troublesome, apart from the studio's Christmas and Easter videos. But Mr. Vischer, Big Idea's Iowa-bred founder, is very much a product of white evangelical Protestantism the Christian and Missionary Alliance, to be specific.
Mr. Vischer, 36, says white, Protestant America has lots of nice, happy people but little great humor. Maybe the people are too comfortable, he muses, acknowledging that he escaped into humor when his parents divorced. His personal idols became Britain's Monty Python crew and the Coen brothers.
Mr. Vischer was tossed out of Minnesota's St. Paul Bible College (now Crown College) for skipping chapel too often, and he started working in video production rather than studying elsewhere.
In 1993, Big Idea produced "Where's God When I'm S-Scared?" a pioneering children's video with 3D computer animation. By 1998, Wal-Mart came calling.
College degree or not, Mr. Vischer is a philosopher who wrote the 72-page "Big Idea 101" manual for prospective employees. It champions a nonsectarian "biblical worldview," which Mr. Vischer defines as hope that results from belief that "there is an Author. We live in a grand story the triumph of a loving God."
He contrasts that with the "modern worldview" that he thinks was typified by Walt Disney and survives in preschool entertainment. It sees no Author but upholds ideals and another grand story, "the triumph of reason, evolution and the progress of the human spirit."
That's fine as far as it goes, he says, but that culture is fast fading and today's children increasingly consume "postmodern" entertainment that's cynical, bereft of any grand story, hope or ideals. In a word: "Whatever."
The married father of three preteens said in a phone interview that, after age 8, what children watch gradually becomes "more disrespectful, sarcastic and cynical."
Not that the big entertainment corporations are immoral "but they're profoundly amoral."
"They will change values like we change socks," he says. "The problem with amorality in media is, 'Give them what they want.'
"We are committed to giving kids what they need and making it what they want," he explains about Big Idea.
What they need, he insists, is values that will benefit them and society.
Each show, he says, should have "a nugget of truth a kid can put in his pocket and carry around the rest of his life."

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