***/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+
written and directed by Paul Vischer and Mike Nawrocki
by Walter Chaw Sort of Monty Python-lite with a Christian message, the VeggieTales direct-to-video series of didactic sketches is, I'm told, the top-selling home video series in history, speaking at once to the creepy rise of grotesquely hypocritical religiosity in the United States and the fact that VeggieTales, judging by its first feature-length film Jonah, is extremely clever and entertaining. Packed with visual gags and semi-subtle references (a "Moby Blaster" video game in a seafood reference recalls Melville's fondness for the Jonah tale), Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie is a bouncy Christian animated musical with a handful of compulsively catchy tunes and some crisp computer-imaging work. It occurred to me a few times during the course of the picture that as far as Christian entertainment goes, this is the first product that didn't disqualify the term as an oxymoron.
Father Asparagus and Bob the Tomato are on a trip to see their favourite Raffi-inspired kid's folk-singer when a porcupine sends the pair and their summer harvest children (carrot, maybe a squash, a little asparagus) careening off the road and into a mysterious seafood restaurant run by two Gallic peas. Spotting "Compassion: Market Price" on the menu, sharp-eyed (and rich in iron) tot Junior gets a lesson in just that from a trio of pirates (a cucumber with an eye patch, some kind of gourd, and a pea) who claim to "Do Nothing" but did do that one thing that one time with this one guy named "Jonah." So follows a brief recounting of the brief Old Testament Jonah tale (four short chapters) undertaken with tongue surprisingly in cheek and, ultimately, with a heartening faithfulness to the bittersweet quality of Jonah's fate. The Old Testament is rip-roaring, dark, and twisted, and Jonah does a nice job of preserving at least a portion of the god of the Israelites' capricious wrath and literal justice. A sort of stunned, bemused irony is, after all, the only proper reaction to your deity sending a "great fish" (Jonah 1:17) to eat someone who pissed Him off.
Largely non-denominational and genuinely unpopular amongst the more moronically slavering of the flock (there are as many anti-VeggieTales advocates as pro-), Jonah seems, with its high production values and focus on musicality, intelligence, and literacy, a genuine attempt to reach a wider audience of non-Christians. As Satan's the charming one, I can see the problem. The fact of the matter is that Jonah is a particularly insidious bit of proselytizing perpetrated by talented guys with a good sense of humour; that I'm not at all comfortable with the spread of Christian dogma does little to distract from the fact that VeggieTales makes probably the best case for it since Chesterton and Lewis. Lulled by a diet of easily dismissible dreck like Left Behind and Creed, the secular cause, thanks to this series and smart films like Frailty, would do well to beware.
Getting the deluxe treatment on DVD with a two-disc set loaded with extras, the first features a widescreen anamorphic video transfer and a fullscreen version (on the same side of a dual-layered disc) as well as three separate commentary tracks. Impossibly vibrant, both video transfers are impressive and detailed. (Incidentally, a Spanish dub (essentially a sixth soundmix to go with the English 5.1 and 2.0 tracks and the commentaries) is cramp-inducing and sidesplitting for the non-speaker--seriously, I haven't laughed quite this hard since Glitter.) Surprisingly, the Dolby 5.1 audio presents an audio atmosphere rich with rear-channel and ambient effects, though the highlight is the song presentation, which booms through every speaker with fidelity and depth.
The first commentary track with directors Paul Vicher and Mike Nawrocki is the best, the pair resembling vocally and in their respective roles the "Loveline" duo of Dr. Drew and Adam Corolla. Both are articulate and witty, recalling the route that certain scenes took on their way to the screen. The hostility with which many Christians regard VeggieTales is mentioned in an off-hand comment about the pair being blunted over time by the steady avalanche of disapproving and "helpful" letters. Sounds familiar, I confess. I was disappointed, however, to learn that the two took the structure of Titanic as inspiration for their film. The second track with producer Ameake Owens and director of Animation Marc Vulcano proves less entertaining and, surprisingly, less insightful: there's some overlap in the description of the seafood restaurant as "Twilight Zone"-inspired, oddly enough, and though there's barely any downtime, there's also little information that's very useful for a fuller enjoyment.
The last yakker--a fanciful dealio featuring Larry the Cucumber and Mr. Lunt, two of the three "Pirates Who Do Nothing"--seems largely for the kiddies but in reality is packed with references (non-naughty) that only adults would probably get. (It occurs to me to wonder at this point whether a "lunt" is a vegetable.) Ad-libbed in character with some nice agility, there are a few genuinely funny moments but listening to 85-minutes of it can occasionally be tiring, no matter how slyly adult. Sally Struthers slags, bizarre Fellini references, and talk of the lost film "Roger Rabbit's Matrix" never really get old, though.
The second disc features animated menus (like the first) that are actually revolutionary for the entire animated menu genre. The one under Bonus Materials features about fifteen minutes of pirate dialog, making the menus a true "extra" rather than one of those things that DVDs without extras advertise on the keepcase as such. "Progression Reels" features three short clips split into four simultaneous reels showcasing the progression of animation while two "concept art" galleries gain rare relevancy through audio commentary from concept supervisor Michael Spooner and art director Joe Sapulich. Though there is an option to view the galleries without commentary, I can't imagine for the life of me why you would. "Digital Dailies" is a fairly funny character-narrated joke reel (Larry the Cucumber and Khalil the worm-a-pillar) with a genuinely funny reference to Being John Malkovich, and "Extra Countertop Scenes" is a trailer/short starring Larry and Bob (the Tomato) that locates the pair's debt to Abbot and Costello. Have I mentioned that this stuff is actually funny?
The sort of fabricated "Outtakes" made popular by Pixar make an appearance here as well. They're amusing in English, but the Spanish dub again, inexplicably, renders them wheezingly hilarious. Pointing at the silhouette of Mr. Lund on the menu reveals an Easter Egg of the two French peas sneaking a camcorder into a screening of the picture for the purposes of bootlegging and sale on eBay. A reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail slew the lonely high school kid in me.
A series of Making Of docus are lively and informative, charting the two-year journey of the film from conception to fruition. The drawback is the in-reference-laden interviews that presuppose a familiarity with the VeggieTales universe. Not a great introduction, in other words, it's no doubt a treasure trove for long-time admirers of the films. "Making the Movie" is a breezy, surprisingly substantive piece while "The Studio Process" provides a slightly meatier focus on some of the technical aspects behind creating an animated film. "Big Idea Tour" is a short walkthrough of the Big Idea studios (creator of VeggieTales), but "Jonah and the Bible" proves the most interesting of the docus in that it provides (sadly only) a little insight into--the prickly--process of adapting the Bible. "Khalil Auditions" is a silly, and guiltily funny "audition" voice reel with folks doing Bette Davis, Walter Brennan, Don Corleone, and, indescribably, Jack Nicholson ("a beyooootiful young as-PAR-agus").
A section focusing on the picture's Score begins with a short docu featuring Vischer and composer Kurt Heinecke. Ironically, the sound on this feature is sort of spotty, fading in and out in volume. Score progression reels mimic the scene progression reels, all of which shares time with videos for Superchick, Belly of the Whale, and a rousing rendition of "Billy Joe McGuffrey" sure to drive parents to drink and Catholicism. Pointing at the guitar reveals an Easter Egg sporting the contents of Khalil's motivational tape, loaded with such keepers as "You have a great sense of direction;" "You are a skilled potato processor;" "Your voice is like the sound of wind chimes;" and my absurdist favourite, "You can speak German."
Under the subheading Fun one finds "Khalil's Answering Machine," which is exactly what it is, a "Jonah Sing Along" that is exactly what it is, a trivia section coming in "easy" and "hard" flavours, an "Interactive Story" feature with options to have it read to you and to read it on your own, "Family Fun Activities" with a "Blind Puzzle" teaching compassion, and the "Second Chance Card" that teaches mercy. Both give directions on how to make a Flanders-esque game/voucher system bent on teaching Republican family values in no uncertain terms. Assimilate, resistance is futile. A DVD-ROM feature reveals more young-child oriented games (of the click and find variety) and colouring pages. Pointing at the red button on the Fun menu opens an Easter Egg with Khalil playing with a talking Jonah doll. ("Move over bacon, here comes something leaner.")
A Trailers & Previews section reveals a Jonah Teaser, a preview for Jonah and 3-2-1 Penguins!, a storyboard preview for Little Joe, which appears to be a retelling of Joseph's dreamcoat as a western, "Larryboy," a traditional cel animated superhero Bible thing, a spot for the Jonah PC game, and another for the Jonah soundtrack. Pointing at the second shrimp ("the cockroach of the sea," I've learned) reveals a weird little Easter Egg of the Chinese bootleg cover for this picture.
Pointing at the aquarium under the main menu reveals an Easter Egg of the "Rusty Sprockets Show"--sort of a "Space Ghost: Coast to Coast" premise with a ventriloquist robot ("initiate transition sequence" announces a commercial) interviewing Larry and Bob. Again, hilarious--what can I say? Fit me out for a beard, a sweater, and an acoustic guitar. Originally published: March 22, 2003.