NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.2002
Mike Nawrocki/ Phil Vischer
Big Idea Productions
REVIEWED BY SHERILYN BOGLEAs Christian parents, we want our children to be excited about the word of God. We want them to gladly hide it in their hearts and not to dread the reading of it. And we are so relieved when someone comes along to help us make those desires a reality. Over the years, Big Idea Productions has endeavored to be one of the Christian family’s greatest allies in helping us train our children to love the word of God. There were times when they got closer to that goal and there were times they fell short of the mark. Enter Jonah. In Jonah, Big Idea Productions, the creators of VeggieTales, brought us a big story about a big fish to the big screen. A story of redemption, compassion, and mercy.
Let’s set aside for the moment any arguments about whether using singing vegetables to portray men and women of God is an effective method for cementing the scriptures into the hearts and minds of our children. Even if we were to assume that it is, let’s be realistic and also assume that other ideas are equally able to be fixed upon the minds of little ones by use of that same method — whether intentionally or not. I think we would all grant that the makers of VeggieTales have only the very best motives behind the videos and movies they make. They love God and want to serve him by ministering to the hearts of children. Even with that desire at their core, VeggieTales has inadvertently woven some less than desirable “big ideas” into Jonah, along side of the biblical tale - ideas like immaturity in adults, comical pain, inappropriate role models, and biblical inaccuracies.
Throughout the film we are exposed to a recurring theme of immaturity, both emotional and spiritual, in the majority of the adults, especially the ones we should most be able to respect. The father, “Dad Asparagus,” and the other adult chaperone for the van load of children, “Bob the Tomato,” continually exhibit impatience, bickering, unforgiveness, frustration, silliness, and seemingly little regard for safety. Other adults show hysterical panic over “fish slapping.” We realize that foolishness (e.g. silliness) is bound up in the heart of the child, but there appears to be an abundance of it stuck in the hearts of the adults in Jonah. “Silly” seems to be the guide word for all VeggieTales productions, and Jonah is no exception. If you’re in doubt, look up the lyrics to the “Bald Bunny Song,” “In the Belly of a Whale,” or the “Credits Song.”
Now, “silly” is a relative term that is more welcome in some households than in others, and there is definitely wiggle room concerning how much of that type of humor is acceptable. One area where most parents would agree that laughter is not welcome, however, is that of pain. We would, of course, frown and scold if little Susie thought it was funny when Johnny fell and skinned his knees. Somehow, in the world of movie-making, though, such humor is not equally taboo. Jonah contained numerous instances of laughter-provoking painful or distressing experiences ranging anywhere from Bob the Tomato getting stabbed with a porcupine quill to the same unfortunate Bob being flattened by an overturned van (that part is in the outtakes). When an anachronistically placed outboard motor goes out of control and lands in the sea — that’s funny, too— even though it’s caused a lot of destruction, it’s gone forever, and it was somebody else’s property. And poor Billy Joe McGuffrey! Whoever that kid is, his pain and suffering is apparently bad enough to merit its very own silly song. Ironically, all of this chuckle-prompting suffering is in a movie that is trying to teach compassion.
Counter-positive Role Models
In the VeggieTales version, unlike in the biblical account of Jonah, our hero is “fortunate” enough to have a side kick, Khalil — a caterpillar. “Well, that is only half true. [His] mother was a caterpillar; [his] father was a worm. But [he’s] okay with that now.” — whatever that means. What Khalil may lack in physical strength, he more than makes up for in his wealth of advice and wisdom. The source of this wisdom and of his positive outlook? The law of God? The prophets? No. According to Khalil, it is his motivational tapes. The kind that say, “You are powerful and attractive. You do not run from your problems but confront them face to face.” “You are a go-getter.” Okay, they also say, “You are a skilled metal worker.”, but that’s really beside the point. What concerns us more is that they are what help Khalil “see the whale as half full.” So maybe they are also what informs the caterpillar that, “The world doesn’t need more people who are big and important. The world needs more people who are nice and compassionate.” Perhaps those tapes, or somebody, should have informed Khalil that “nice and compassionate” are hardly words most of us would use to describe any of the prophets in scripture. Khalil may be a cute and well intentioned “traveling buddy” for Jonah, but he didn’t end up being a good example for our kids.
Our other role models are…well, let’s start with the fact that these Veggie friends of ours aren’t butchers or bakers or candlestick makers — they’re pirates. In the words of Mr. Lunt, “You know, pirates have to pillage and plunder…” In other words, they are criminals. I suppose we and the people of their home town should be thankful that these Vegetables are too lazy to perform their designated criminal activities. Instead they, well, they “don’t do anything.” These adults who are teaching the cute little asparagus about biblical history and spiritual character — and in turn teaching our children as well — are running a little short on character themselves and apparently don’t know their Bible history, either . Let me explain. As to their character, we know this much about the seafaring trio: they go out of their way to avoid anything that remotely resembles work, preferring instead to watch a television show about an alien from outer space; they are in no hurry to pay their debts; and when they do get some money, they squander it all on snack food in order for a chance to win the prize inside. About that Bible history lesson of theirs …
Some of the scriptural flaws in Jonah are certainly less serious than others. Whether Jonah found a ship going to Tarshish (Jonah 1:3b) or had to bribe some pirates to take him; and whether the source of the treacherous storm was determined by lots (Jonah 1:7) or “Go Fish” probably won’t do much to influence our children’s doctrine. Saying that God is going to destroy Nineveh, and that Nineveh’s worst offense was “fish-slapping” just might. (See Nahum 3:1-4) Seeing Jonah snatched by the whale from the surface of the water when scripture tells us that Jonah “went down to the bottoms of the mountains,” (Jonah 2:5-6) may not be harmful. Painting the repentance of the Ninevites in softer terms — “So the people of Nineveh said they were sorry, stopped the fish slapping, and started being nice to people.” — than the Bible does — “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way…”(see Jonah 3:5-10) could have further reaching effects.
Also interwoven throughout the story of Jonah is a theology that gets a little murky at times. We are told that, “God wants to give everyone a second chance.” Did they really mean “everyone?” Does that include all of the other cities God destroyed without sending them their own personal prophet first? Did it include the citizens of Sodom who weren’t in Lot’s family? And about that second chance. A second chance to do what? To repent? If you’re anything like me, you used up that “second chance” ages ago and are on to “chance” number… what comes after gazillion? And while Jonah may neglect to mention it, just as for Nineveh in the book of Nahum, there comes a day of reckoning for everyone, and the Bible isn’t the slightest bit unclear about that. (Hebrews 9:27, 2 Corinthians 5:10) In this portrayal of Jonah, our prophet also seems to be in doubt about the omniscience of God, “You do not know what Nineveh is like. Perhaps you’ve never been there.” Then there are the angels. At least, that’s what we would assume that white-robed, choir-singing, well-lit beings that appear from out of nowhere into the belly of a whale would be. These same “angels” refer to God not in terms like, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory!.” ( Isaiah 6:3)— but simply as, “The Big Man.” Well, at least they left off the “upstairs” part.
Teaching the great stories and principles of the Bible to our children should be a fun and exciting ride — for them and for us, and we can find some wonderful resources* along the way to reinforce and enhance that discipleship journey. Navigating through the maze of less-than-positive ideas in Jonah in order to get to the sort-of-scriptural narrative on the other side, though, makes this VeggieTales movie not worth the trip.
Besides, did we really expect our kids to actually become more compassionate by watching another cartoon?
*Try The World's Greatest Stories tapes and CD's