The fans of the Christian-themed animated VeggieTales videos–of whom there are many, it would appear–will doubtlessly turn out in droves for this first feature based on the series. It’s a version of the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, complete with characters who are talking asparagus stalks, carrots, peas and tomatoes, featuring periodic musical numbers and strenuously repeated messages of goodness and obedience to divine commands, and nobly impressing on its young target audience the value of such virtues as compassion and mercy. Kids and parents who dote on the thirty-minute episodes may well take to this triple-length outing, with its relentlessly good intentions and ultra-clean content. Those of us unfamiliar with the series, on the other hand, may find the appearance of the movie weirdly surrealistic and wonder at the apparent success of a concept centering on talking, legless and armless grocery produce bouncing around and burbling platitudes and lowbrow jokes. Some may emerge from the auditorium, in fact, with a strange inclination to turn vegetarian just to guard against a possible recurrence.
The Jonah story–with a rather prissy asparagus as the prophet–forms the meat of the movie (if you’ll pardon the expression), but it’s bookended by a prologue and epilogue starring a group of characters–some veggie kids and their doofus adult chaperones–who serve as an audience for the scriptural tale. (The earlier portion features a van crash which, though intended to be humorous, might actually be a mite scary to toddlers; it is nice to note that the vegetables are all wearing their seat belts, even if they don’t have hands to steer with.) The Big Fish tale itself has an assortment of “cute” supporting figures to prop up the green protagonist (a fussy, provincial type, to tell the truth, and a stick in more ways than one). One of them–a half-worm, half-caterpillar named Khalil–is a real oddity. Presumably he’s supposed to be a sort of Arab Jiminy Cricket, but he comes across as a rather crude caricature of the money-grubbing rug salesman, and the fact that he’s the only character with a pronounced accent and a hugely bulbous nose (as opposed to the distinctly white-bread Jonah and his local audiences) might give one pause. There’s also a trio of bumbling pirates to narrate the story; they provide the few jokes that are aimed at adult viewers, though there aren’t many of those. The musical interludes don’t offer much respite, laboring as they do under heavy, repetitive lyrics and generic tunes. (One, sung by a heavenly choir, is a peculiar sort of spiritual.) It’s also notable that, with the single exception of one of the children in the wraparound segments, there isn’t a single female in the picture of any consequence. Is unisex de rigeur?
Parents of conservative Christian stripe should find “Jonah” to their taste. It’s endlessly good-natured, often cleverly animated (one shot of Jonah on a camel is like an oddball “Asparagus in Arabia”), respectful of Scripture and free of all taint of the nasty or suggestive, or even the slightly naughty (no potty jokes or vomit sequences here, thank heaven). Others, however, will be less tolerant, acknowledging the makers’ fine intentions but finding the result rather heavy-handed and, even at a mere eighty minutes, fatally overlong. They may ask, with some justification: Where’s a Vegamatic when you really need one?