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Jonah: A Veggietales Movie
DVD
Reviewed by Jason Myers, © 2003

Format: Movie
By:   Mike Nawrocki and Phil Vischer (writers/directors)
Genre:   Computer-Animated Foodstuffs
Released:   October 4, 2002 (original theatrical release)
Review Date:   March 07, 2003
Audience Rating:   G
RevSF Rating:   6/10 (What Is This?)
In the annals (that's two 'N's, kids) of feature-length computer animation history, there are toys, and ants, and bugs, and extinct reptiles, and extinct mammals, and monsters, and fairy tale creatures, and boy geniuses, and— raw vitamin-rich foodstuffs from the produce aisle of your local green grocer?

Yes, Jonah: A Veggietales Movie is the epic story of a monocled British-accented asparagus who gets swallowed by a whale. But, there's also the frame story, which involves, among other characters, Bob the Tomato.

At first, the idea of a talking tomato driving a cornucopia's worth of fruits and vegetables in a VW Bus to see a concert performance by the mono-monikered singer Twippo didn't seem that odd. But then I noticed that the tomato didn't have any arms— or legs! Hey, how can he steer that thing without arms? How can he hit the breaks, or the gas? What in the name of Our Farmer Who Art in Heaven is going on here?

Frankly, the people who came up with Veggietales are mental. Mental! Twenty minutes into the movie, as a limbless cucumber with a beard and an eye-patch puts a nautical telescope up to his bulging peepers, I'm still trying to wrap my melon around the insanity of it all.

Of course, when Jonah got its big-screen release, there were thousands upon thousands of kids out there who saw nothing unusual about this at all. For years, the Christian computer animation studio Big Idea has been cranking out the home video adventures of, among others, Larry the Cucumber and Pa Grape. The kids go to Sunday School, have some snacks, sing some hymns, read a few bible verses, and, later that night, before bedtime, instead of Arthur or Bob the Builder, it's Veggietales. Religutainment.

But wait! These aren't your Grandma's Bible stories. Okay, well, technically, they are. Except in the King James Version, nobody gets slapped in the puss with a wet scaly herring.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. You see, Jonah's this prophet, who brings the people of Israel messages from God. Among the messages are, 'Do not fight, do not cheat. Wash your hands before you eat.' and 'Don't eat pigs, don't eat bats. Don't eat beetles, flies or gnats.' Jonah's second message causes a restaurateur to close his establishment called 'Log O' Pork' in favor of selling bagels. Jonah's got a cushy job, until God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah. Now, the Ninevites are a particularly nasty group. They lie. They cheat. But worst of all, they're fish-slappers! Fish-slappers! They clock people upside the head with the catch of the day. Eventually, Jonah winds up on a boat with The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything, who've agreed to, for once, do something, but only because they need the money to buy more bags of Mr. Twisty's Twisted Cheese Curls. Aside from the tasty fake-cheese goodness, they hope to find the golden ticket that will mean that they are the winners of 'Mr. Twisty's Twisted Cheese Curls Sweepstakes.'

Prince of Egypt this is not. But the combo of anachronistic non-sequiter humor and Golden Rule moral lessons makes Jonah, and his tale, easy to swallow.

As a big-screen movie, though, Jonah is pretty small potatoes. The first incarnation of the Jonah script started out as just another story in a line of direct-to-video veggietales, and it shows. Take away the impressive-for-a-minor-animation-studio visuals like a pirate ship and a massive whale, and what you've got is less than epic. A pretty simple story, a few songs, and a lesson well-learned (in this case, the lessons on the menu are compassion and mercy).

Even though Jonah isn't a cinematic achievement, it's got plenty of pluck. It helps that the characters are genuinely cute. Not 'I want to ram a meat skewer into your rainbow embroidered tummy' Care Bear cute, or disturbing 'This is what happens when curious toddlers get into their parents' secret stash of LSD' Teletubbies cute. It's amazing what memorable and expressive characters Big Idea have created from great voicework, common salad ingredients, and eyes like Grade AA hard-boiled eggs.

And then there are the songs. Rhyming Arizona with Jonah. Brilliant! Days later, I'm doing my laundry, and find myself singing:

'Jonah was a prophet
(Oooh, Oooh)
But he really never got it.
(Sad but true)
If you've been watching you can spot it.
(Doodle-ee-doo)'

Musically speaking, make sure you stick around for the credits. In 'In the Belly of a Whale', the singer, taking on the persona of Jonah, notes archly that 'it behooves me to be heaved.' And immediately following that is 'The Credits Song':

'There should be a rule that the song under the credits
Remotely pertains to the movie's basic plot.
That rule has not been made
so for now we'll have to say,
'Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey.''

Many months ago, I gave Monsters Inc. the same rating I now give Jonah. That's right, Monsters Inc., the blockbusting PIXAR crowd pleaser and merchandising factory. 'Why'?, you might ask, put talking vegetables on the same playing field as Sully and Mike? After two Toy Stories and A Bug's Life, PIXAR's got their feature-length animation schtick down to a science. One of the things about science, though: it's predictable. So, even though Monsters Inc. has more jokes per square centimeter, and even though PIXAR handily clobbers Big Idea in the graphics department, the talking bug-eyed produce feels, well, fresher.

DVDetails

In the tradition of recent computer animated releases Shrek and Monsters Inc., Jonah gets the royal two-disc treatment. Probably not necessary, but there is some fun stuff in here.

First off: some of the menu screens are little features unto themselves. The two French grapes in the restaurant and The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything sitting in the booth provide endless nonsensical musings as they wait for you to make your selection.

And a complaint: the default setting is full-screen. I know this is a kid's movie, but that's no excuse. Default should always be wide-screen. Always. I say this because I watched the whole movie on full-screen, and then felt cheated when I found out that there was a wide-screen format. That's very nearly as lame as the DVD for Brotherhood of the Wolf,which has the English-dubbed version instead of the original French language track as the audio default. Don't make us work harder to watch the movie as it was intended to be seen. Grrrrr.

Alright: three commentary tracks. One by the director of animation and the producer. For some reason, the producer kinda got on my nerves. Maybe it's because she's just a normal person and not an entertainer. Or maybe it's because no healthy person should really listen to three commentary tracks about the same movie in the same day. The in-character commentary with Larry the Cucumber and Mr. Lunt can drag a little, but it's a notch above a similar in-character commentary for the Muppets From Space DVD. If you've only got the time (or patience) for one commentary track, the one by writers/directors Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki has the best mix of entertainment and info.

For the basics, watch the 'Making the Movie' featurette. 'The Studio Process' is less essential. The 'Studio Tour' has some hit-and-miss humor, but leaves you with the impression that Big Idea (which has a non-moving escalator because it's housed in an old department store) would be a groovy place to work. The staff have odd collections, like 'Tie Land' and 'Regrettable Edibles' (on display: Clamato, Monkey Gland Sauce, and Crocodile Jerky). 'Jonah and the Bible' is a nice feature, especially for those of you who find yourself watching the movie with a companion who keeps saying, 'Was that part really in the Bible?' For the record, the Old Testament makes no overt mentions of fish-slapping.

There's a bonus song: 'The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything.' And the full version of Billy Joe McGuffrey, a song we only hear part of in the movie. Unfortunately, instead of it being sung by the veggies (which would have been awesome), it's sung by some generic guitar-strumming Raffi wanna-be with elementary school kids as backup.

The bloopers reel idea (always strange because, in animation, you have to do extra work to create your own wacky outtakes) was clearly cribbed from PIXAR, but is still big fun. Also, make sure to watch at least the first of the 'Extra Countertop Scenes.'

There are some DVD-rom games. Most of them are mind-numbingly annoying Flash stuff, but it's great to get a chance to actually play the Melville-inspired fictional video game, Moby Blaster. Okay, so it's an obvious clone of Atari's Breakout, but it's also surprisingly addictive, and it comes with a spiffy 'create your own levels' feature.

More gripes: 1) The Digital Dailies are much more amusing to the people who spent their time trying to work the bugs out of their computer generated objects than it is to the folks at home. That sequence should have been about a third shorter. 2) The concept art commentaries are booooring. 3) If I get a perfect score on the Trivia Challenge, I expect to be rewarded!

That last complaint is forgiven though, because, on nearly every menu screen of disc two, you can find an Easter Egg by pressing either right or left repeatedly until you highlight a hidden object, like a bowling ball or a root beer bottle. Then press enter. The best one: the two French grapes using a camcorder in a movie theater to try to make a bootleg copy of Jonah.

There's more stuff: a featurette on the score of the movie, previews, trailers, assorted brick-a-brack. Enough to make you go insane, frankly.

The Movie Itself: 6 out of 10

The DVD Features: 9 out of 10

RevSF Film/DVD Editor has logged more than his fair share of time in the belly of a whale. Luckily, Pinocchio was there to keep him company.

 
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