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Vegetables Seek to Provide Healthier Hollywood Diet
By Nigel Hunt
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - An asparagus, tomato and cucumber star in a new movie that aims to provide a healthier diet for those sickened by the violence in many Hollywood films.
"Jonah," which opens in wide release in movie theaters on Friday, is based on the biblical story that co-stars a whale. In this computer-animated retelling, the Jewish prophet is played by an asparagus as the popular children's video series "VeggieTales" makes its debut on the big screen.
"VeggieTales" is the creation of Big Idea Productions, whose founder and Chief Executive Officer Phil Vischer describes the series as "Monty Python taking over your Sunday school class."
"Most of our fans consider themselves Christian although Hebrew schools have used VeggieTales," said Vischer, noting that the movie's message about the need for mercy, compassion and second-chances should have wide appeal.
Computer animator Vischer founded Big Idea in a spare bedroom in July 1993. Based in Lombard, Illinois, it now employs nearly 200 people working on projects that also include books, music and a live, touring stage production.
The company said it seeks to promote "biblical values," which in this movie primarily translates into mercy and compassion for the bad guys who end up happier than the hero, Jonah.
"We have a hard time getting along with each other and forgiving, and most movies tend to encourage revenge. We all love to see the bad guy getting what is coming to him," Vischer told Reuters in an interview.
The bad guys in the tale of Jonah live in the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh. In this retelling, their main sin is an irritating habit of hitting both strangers and each other with fish for no reason at all.
The fish slapping has its roots in a skit on the British comedy series "Monty Python's Flying Circus." It also, however, has some historical basis as the real residents of ancient Nineveh worshiped a fish deity, Dagon.
Vischer said the popularity of the story was one factor in its choice for the first VeggieTales movie.
"There are very few stories kids get as excited about as Jonah and the whale," Vischer said.
VeggieTales previously has dealt with other well-known Old Testament stories such as David and Goliath (Dave and the Giant Pickle) but has tread carefully in the New Testament.
"We made a decision at the very beginning not to portray Jesus as a vegetable," Vischer said.
Vischer acknowledged that the movie, which includes a gospel choir of angelic vegetables performing in the whale's stomach, may not appeal to everyone.
"This will not necessarily appeal as broadly as a Disney film in which they try and craft a line which doesn't offend anyone and end up so bland they don't engage," Vischer said.
"We have a definite philosophical point of view. We are trying to help parents pass on biblical values to their kids," he added.
'HOLLYWOOD IS TERRIFIED'
Vischer said he hoped if the movie does well it will send a message to Hollywood that there is "an audience here we weren't paying attention to."
"They love taking chances on offending people, but to push the envelope in the direction of faith, Hollywood is terrified of doing that," he said.
Glenn Ross, president of the movie's distributor FHE Pictures, said that despite VeggieTales reputation as Christian programming there had been "absolutely no problem" finding movie theaters wanting to book the film.
"It has humor, great songs and great animation. There is definitely a real move in this country toward strong family fare with a strong family message," he said.
FHE is a division of Artisan Entertainment Inc.
Most of the characters from VeggieTales videos appear in the movie, including its popular double act, the clownish Larry the Cucumber and more serious minded Bob the Tomato.
Archibald Asparagus lands the role of Jonah and plays him as a genteel, if uptight Brit who wears a monocle and loves croquet.
In its early days, Big Idea Productions did not have the funds to hire professional voice artists, leaving the task to Vischer, his wife Lisa, co-founder Mike Nawrocki and some friends.
The three still portray many of the characters with Vischer providing the voice of more than half a dozen of them, including Archibald Asparagus and Bob the Tomato.
10/02/02 13:36 ET
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