NEW YORK – Americans have always been told to eat their vegetables, but when it comes to video veggies, they're doing more than that — they're devouring them.
The best-selling direct-to-video series of the last two years features a group of digitally animated vegetables that recreate biblical stories. And on Friday, the oh-so-nutritious bounty is leaping to the big screen with Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.
"It's a sea adventure with a big whale and a fun story kids would be interested in hearing," co-writer and co-director Mike Nawrocki said. "But it's also got a great message about second chances and mercy."
The veggies' movie debut is a far cry from the business Nawrocki, friend Phil Vischer and Vischer's wife started in a spare bedroom in 1993. Wanting to take advantage of the awakening world of digital animation, the trio created videos about talking Christian vegetables, choosing simple characters like cucumbers and tomatoes because they were easier to draw.
"We were going to do talking candies, but Phil's wife was concerned that mothers would have a concern about their kids falling in love with candy," Nawrocki said.
About 500 people bought the first video, Where's God When I'm S-Scared? Word-of-mouth eventually brought the series to the top of the Christian retail market and then into national chains like Target and Wal-Mart.
Nawrocki said the series is successful because it fulfills a need that the mainstream children's market wasn't meeting,
"In a culture where 90 percent of people believe in God, biblical values are really important to parents," he said. "When we started, Paul just looked at the stuff that was available to his daughter, and it was teaching her stuff he didn't want to teach her. We wanted to create a show that kids would love to watch but teach the values we wanted to pass along to them."
Jennifer Gigowski, a 26-year-old Indianapolis homemaker, agreed. Though she has no children of her own, she began watching the series when she babysat her pastor's kids.
"Making violent shows that are targeted to young children is criminal in my mind," she said, complaining about shows like the Power Rangers series. "In my opinion, VeggieTales is the best thing to happen to Christian entertainment ever."
Though biblical stories often have very adult subject matter, Vischer and Nawrocki keep VeggieTales light as a house salad.
In Jonah, the people of Nineveh don't commit unspeakable abominations; they slap each other with fish, Monty Python-style. And though the Jonah story itself is a downer — the prophet ends up alone in the desert — the VeggieTales version encases it in a modern-day story with a happy ending.
But some adults grouse that it's simplifying complex moral matters into the primary colors of a child's world.
"Children may wonder why God would want to rain fire and brimstone on a whole city just because of some 'fishy' behavior," ChristianityToday.com film critic Jeffrey Overstreet said. "I would let my children watch it only if I were careful to discuss it with them afterwards. I would want to make sure that they comprehended the story's message of God's grace instead of coming away scared that God is going to zap them for their sins."
More secular folk also found VeggieTales less than refreshing. Joe Johnson, a 34-year-old from Jersey City, N.J., said he wasn't thrilled to find out that the innocuous kiddie video he rented for his daughter turned out to be proselytizing to her.
"You watch this at home with your kids, put it in your VCR and then you're surprised by the fact that you're being preached to by three-dimensional vegetables, which is kind of shocking," he said.
But New York magazine copy editor Carl Rosen, a Conservative Jew, said he didn't have a problem with his 5-year-old boy being a VeggieTales fan.
"When VeggieTales first came out, my office received promo copies of the first three videos. I saw the word 'Christian' and threw them away," he said. "Then my wife bought one without reading the fine print and we watched it with our son and we all thought it was great."