Before it hit some serious financial setbacks and ended up on the auction block, Christian entertainment conglomeration Big Ideas was perhaps best known as the creator of the religious-based Veggietales cartoon. Using simple 3D animation and some comical cautionary tales, the company forged a commercial popularity that few within its niche market could even imagine. Indeed, before going bankrupt, the production house was discovering some sound mainstream success. Naturally, after small screen triumphs, there was a desire to challenge the staid cinematic notions of the family film. Thus, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie was born. After a lengthy production and a few problems both inside and outside the title, it hit theaters to decent reviews and minor revenues. Now Lionsgate is giving us a Blu-ray/DVD combo to appease those fans eager to have Bob the Tomato and his pals pretty up their pre-Easter viewing, and while fresh and funny at times, things start to fall apart when God (of all things), gets involved.
While on their way to the Twippo Concert (think Raffi with less annoying songs), Bob the Tomato and Dad Asparagus accidentally send their VW bus loaded with kids - Junior Asparagus, Laura Carrot, Percy Pea, and Annie - into a ravine. Lost and in need of a tow, they all end up at a seafood restaurant where the kids meet The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything - Larry the Cucumber, Mr. Lunt, and Pa Grape. The landlocked scallywags then regale the wee ones with a tale of compassion and mercy centering on God's prophet Jonah, and the day he decided to go against his Maker. When told to visit the vile place known as Nineveh and offer the people a second chance, our messenger balks. Instead, he hires the pirates to take him to Tarshish. During the boat journey, Jonah meets a wise caterpillar named Khalil, forces God's wrath in the form of a storm, and is sent overboard, only to be swallowed by a big fish. After three days of praying he is rescued and proceeds to Nineveh to answer his duty.
You can tell when Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie is trying too hard. Instead of the easy comedy and camaraderie between the anthropomorphized produce, outside the simplistic narrative flow and novel ideas, the movie makes a fuss and then flails around even more, doing everything possible to erase religion out of the mix - and that's a shame. While too much fundamentalism would turn this title into a chore, the backwards theory of surreptitiously hiding it in loud songs and regressive slapstick doesn't work, either. Like an After School Special where subjects are broached, but then best left for a remedial reading list after the closing credits, this film name-checks several Bible classics while asking you to then get out your copy of the Good Book to see what really happened. Sure, it's fun and guaranteed to get your ADD-addled offspring to pay attention to the Old Testament, but there is an odd disconnect involved. Instead of hitting us over the head with piety, the makers Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie wants to cinematic sleight of hand - and the results still feel awkward and incomplete.
The beginning is probably the best. Bob and his caravan full of music fans have a hilarious song about a clumsy guy, and when we learn that it is just one of Twippo's many manic tunes, we settle in for a promised good time. But then the movie never really delivers on that irreverence, instead going back to the kind of silly slapstick farcing that fails many a family film. Do we really need the goes-nowhere notion of Nineveh as the fish slapping capital of the Middle East? Or that little caterpillar Khalil is a know it all expert at everything? How about the uber-odd gospel number deep inside the belly of the fish, a sequence that seems to take up almost ten minutes? Sure, the singing is great and the message meaningful, but the whole thing feels forced and overdone. Even the food-related jokes, offered to make sure we're reminded that we are dealing with walking, talking vegetables here, grow sour after a while. In small batches, the VeggieTales were always interesting. Draw out for over an hour and twenty minutes, the overstay their welcome.
Even the message of compassion and mercy gets lost. Yes, God agrees to give Ninevah a second chance and then a reluctant Jonah is also offered another heaping helping of grace. In the bookend material, little Laura Carrot is forgiven for being a spoiled sport before. But what, exactly, does this have to do with God? Religion is always a tough sell to the masses, but the VeggieTales are already geared toward a crowd comfortable with church. Could there be a bit more preaching and less pratfalls? Granted, the overall effect is light and fun, a perfect way to spend a few quality minutes with your offspring, and there is a good message buried deep within this occasionally droning madness. But Jonah wants to be more than that. It wants to be the bridge between Jesus and the same old Saturday cartoon fare. It really doesn't succeed on that level. Fans of the series will definitely see the upside. Others will merely wondering where all the dogma went.
Make no mistake about it - this is mid-level CGI. We aren't talking about a House of Mouse or Pixar level of detail here. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks great, if a little flat in the character and background design. The 1080p AVC encode is strong, with colors standing out vibrantly and contrasts clear and crisp. During the ocean voyage material, the waves are impressive, and the aforementioned gospel hoedown really shines with vibrant lighting and set design. The characters are rendered well and move with fluidity and ease.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also impressive, employing all the channels to offer side sound effects and ambient noise to expand the film's aural palette. The songs come across with power and clarity while the dialogue is solid and easy to understand. Even when things amp up a bit, action wise, the speakers keep up with excellent polish and professionalism. This is not a chintzy release from a tech specs perspective. Once again, it can't compete with Hollywood circa 2011, but no one said it was going or trying to.
Aside from a DVD version of the film, you get a lot of added content here. The Blu-ray is bulked up with three commentaries (from the creators, producers, and a couple of the "characters"), a series of Behind the Scenes featurettes, a look at outtakes, digital dailes, countertop scenes (?), and progression reels. We are also given a series of trailers and previews. As for the DVD, there is a full screen option for a more "family friendly" viewing experience.
Because of the inherent message, because of the desire to make good, and not groan inducing pop culture contrivance, the main driving force here, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie is hard to hate. It does have its issues, but it's also a nice, and somewhat imaginative way, of getting God's word across to the masses. Earning an easy Recommended rating, those outside the fundamentalist fold need to go in with lower expectations. That way, when the full length film fails to fully realize them, you'll be well prepared. While they've done better (this critic has a soft spot for the 3-2-1 Penguins) Big Idea deserves kudos for serving with conviction. It's wasn't/isn't all about money. It's about the 'man upstairs', and for the most part, this effort gets His word across.
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