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Is Veggie-Tales' Movie "Christian" Enough?
Is Veggie-Tales' Movie "Christian" Enough?

Is Veggie-Tales' Movie "Christian" Enough?

by Bob Smietana - The Tennessean.com

Phil Vischer got the surprise of his life in the summer of 2006.

Vischer, the voice of Bob the Tomato, had just finished a pitch for a new VeggieTales movie at Universal Studios, when a studio executive asked, “Are you sure it’s Christian enough?”

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Vischer had spent years trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Hollywood there was a market for faith-based movies. And now a studio executive was telling him his movie idea needed to be more biblical.

“We want you to know that if it needs to be more Christian, we’re OK with that,” Vischer recalled the exec saying.

“I had to stop and wonder what planet I had landed on,” Vischer said.
Universal, it turns out, had realized that God was profitable.

And it hopes that The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, the latest film from Franklin-based Big Idea Productions, will capture the audience that flocked to other faith-based blockbusters. The movie debuts on Friday.

The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, produced by other companies, grossed more than $661 million, according to Boxofficemojo.com.

The new movie represents a remarkable turnaround for Big Idea, which went bankrupt in 2003, after the release of its last film, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie. The company self-financed Jonah after major studios turned it down. “We could barely get a meeting for Jonah,” said Mike Nawrocki, who directed the Pirates film.

But after the Passion and the first Narnia film, doors began to open, Nawrocki said. Before those two films, “it was unheard of ” for a studio to invest heavily in faith-based movies, he said.

Now, studios have embraced the potential of faith-based films.
“If you can tell a story with a biblical world view well, I think there is a big audience for that,” he said. “In a country where 90 percent of the people believe God exists, you are going to strike a chord.”

Not only did Universal fund the latest VeggieTales film, it is promoting the film heavily. That includes spots on network television and ads on billboards and even taxicabs in major markets such as New York and Chicago, Vischer said.

All of that meant that the filmmakers could worry less about money and concentrate on making the best film they could. “It’s fun to make a movie when your house is not on the line,” Vischer said.

Vischer said that Big Idea’s past struggles were a lesson in faith.
He and Nawrocki made the first VeggieTales episode, Where is God When I Am S-Scared, for about $60,000, working out of an unheated storefront in Chicago in the early 1990s.

By 2003, Big Idea had sold more than 25 million videos and had more than 200 employees. The company had experienced one miracle after another, Vischer said.
He hoped it would grow big enough to someday rival Disney.

Then everything crashed.

Sales flattened out, causing the company to struggle to make payroll. Instead of cutting staff, Vischer held out hope that God would save the company. If the Jonah film, released in 2002, had been a blockbuster success, all the company’s worries would have been over.

While Jonah did well, grossing more than $26 million despite being made on a shoestring budget for a computer-generate imagery film, it didn’t save Big Idea. The company eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2003 and was bought by Classic Media LLC.

Vischer, who had been Big Idea’s sole owner, lost everything in the company’s struggles. Yet he seems remarkably content.

“Back then, my whole identity was wrapped up in 80 minutes of celluloid,” he said. “You don’t want to be in a place where a single project can destroy your identity.”

If the Pirates film is a success, Vischer says, he’ll be glad for it. If not, “then I’ll move on to what God has in store next.”

Besides its spiritual content, Nawrocki believes the Pirates film has a great deal to offer audiences. It’s based on some of the most popular VeggieTales characters — three wannabe pirates who are finally forced to become heroes.

He described the film as part Pirates of the Caribbean, part Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and part Three Amigos.

Unlike many VeggieTales stories, the Pirates film isn’t based on a Bible story, Nawrocki said. There’s not an altar call at the end, and little mention of God. Instead, there is an Aslan-like king, who helps the pirates along their way.

Instead, the film is more of a parable. And while viewers will get a lesson about what it means to be a hero, Nawrocki says they’ll also have a good time along the way.

“I love this story,” he said. “It’s well paced, and it’s a really funny piece of entertainment.”


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