About the Author

author photo

Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

See All Posts by This Author

What Makes a Movie “Christian?” Q+A on new Veggie Tales movie

There are no shortage of excellent kids movies these days — ReligionWriter rang in the new year watching Ratatouille and eating popcorn with her three young boys, for example — but this Friday, January 11, brings another kid’s option to the big screen: The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie.

What does this movie bring that others don’t? According to Phil Vischer, one of Veggie Tale’s two creators, it brings a sense of Christian-based values that mainstream movies lack.

RW had a chance to see the new movie back in September, when it was screened at the Religion Newswriters Association’s conference in San Antonio. Maybe it was the jet-lag, but RW was underwhelmed by the movie, in no small part because she finds the Veggie Tales voices to be screechy and irritating. (RW recently hid the free Veggie Tales CD her boys brought home from a trip to evangelical-friendly fast-food chain Chick-fil-A for this very reason.)

Perhaps the more fatal flaw was the squeaky-clean humor and plot; that religious aesthetic smiling gosh-darn fun has never appealed to a raised-on-sarcasm journalist like RW. Not that kids’ movies should be R-rated — but they do need to be leavened with occasional adult perspective. (C.F. Chris Rock’s zoo-bound zebra character in Madagascar having an identity crisis and musing to himself: “Maybe I should go to law school.”)

After the movie, Vischer took questions from the journalist-audience, and RW learned something surprising: Vischer has to fend off criticism from fellow Christians — even being criticized, for example, when characters said something as mild as “gosh.”

RW had a chance to sit down with Vischer before he left San Antonio, and he was very friendly in answering all of RW’s questions about what qualifies a movie was “Christian,” whether Vischer feels artistically stifled by his evangelical community, and how Vischer wants to inspire kids to be heroes.

ReligionWriter: Is this going to be targeted mostly at a Christian audience or a general audience?

Vischer: The marketing is largely in the hands of Universal, so I assume they’re wanting to take it as wide as they can; the Big Idea [Vischer’s production company] is handling more of the Christian-world marketing.

RW: What age group is your movie for?

Vischer: It would be the same as Veggie Tales, which starts as young as two and three and goes up to grandparents who have a good appreciation for Monty Python, because we put lots of Monty Python references in our stuff.

RW: Since you are trying to reach parents who make choices about what movies their kids see, what’s the appeal in the movie for a parent who’s not Christian?

Vischer: This is a fun adventure that shows how everybody can be a hero, and how the hero isn’t the tallest or the strongest or the best looking. The hero is the one who does what’s right, no matter how hard.

RW: What gap does this movie fill? Are you creating something that wasn’t there before?

Vischer: Veggie Tales in general is filling a gap. Christian music for kids started way back in the late 70s and early 80s, after Christian music for adults really took off. When VCRs started being adopted, people said, “Hey let’s make pictures to go with our Christian songs for kids.” At first it was really low-budget stuff, because no one assumed they would sell more than ten of them. We said, “That’s a good idea, but if we can just get the quality a little more comparable to what kids are getting from television, maybe a lot more people would be able to give their kids Christian values through media.”

And we discovered we were right. It wasn’t so much that we were the first ones to put biblical values onto a videocassette. But trying to spend enough and think enough and be clever enough to make it a legitimate alternative to Pokémon and Power Rangers, which kids were really into at that time. That was more the hole that we filled.

RW: So, when it comes to your Christian competition, you’re wiping the floor because you’ve got the best production values. But when you compete in the general market, where people don’t notice or care about biblical references, is that difficult?

Vischer: They did notice, and they did care. I think some of them hooked onto the morals more readily than the biblical side of it. Eight out of 10 Americans still identify as Christian, even if they haven’t gone to church in ten years since their parents made them when they were kids. But when they become parents, all of a sudden they look at their own kids and, “What values am I passing onto them? I have values I got in church when I was seven, and I haven’t gone since high school because I decided it wasn’t cool anymore and none of my friends went to church. But now I’m staring into the eyes of my two-year-old, who is asking big questions about the world and where everything came from, and everything she sees on TV is completely devoid of answers to those questions.”

RW: A lot of mainstream kid’s movies are based around values. Is Finding Nemo a Christian film?

Vischer: It’s not an un-Christian film. There are very strong Judeo-Christian values in most successful family films, though not all. Those values resonate so deeply through our culture it’s hard to tell a compelling story that goes against those values or disregards them. You’d have to be wildly cynical as a filmmaker to craft a kids movie that throws Judeo-Christian values out the window.

RW: What’s the biblical side of this movie then?

Vischer: The movie is an allegory, like a parable. If you read the parables in the Bible, none of them mention God or Jesus explicitly, but there’s always a character that represents God. Parables are lessons about the Kingdom of Heaven wrapped into the vernacular of the day, like a vineyard, a potter, a widow with a penny.

With this movie, I said, “Let’s create a modern day parable about what it means to be a hero.” What we don’t say is, “Every one of you has such extraordinary capabilities that you can, under your own power, be a hero.” Some of us maybe, but what we’re really saying is: “Regardless of how you view yourself, God has created you to do something really cool. That’s why we’re here, and it involves helping others, and it has nothing to do with how big and brave and strong you are, and everything to do with trust in God to give you what you need to do what He’s asked you to do.

RW: Is it a theological problem that you can create a “biblical movie” that doesn’t have any overt references to God or Jesus? What is the difference between Finding Nemo and your movie?

Vischer: Our movie is allegorical, but it is a fairly overt allegorical statement about God. Beyond that though, I don’t know that a movie from a Christian filmmaker has to stand apart that much from a really well-told film, like a Finding Nemo or The Mission or The Apostle. There are so many films that have compelling messages with spiritual implications. When Christian filmmakers say, “Mine has to read like a tract,” you’re not making movies anymore, you’re making sermons with a camera.

RW: But you very much come out of and exist in the Christian world—

Vischer: So we’ll get some flack. But we always get flack: It goes with the territory.

RW: If your movie is completely contiguous with the culture, is that a problem? Like a megachurch where the coffee is from Starbucks, and there’s no cross on the wall, and seats are comfortable and the sermon is funny?

Vischer: I wouldn’t make a comparison between crafting churches and crafting films. A church is a body of believers who come together for the purpose of edification and preaching and teaching. A church is a biblically ordained event. A movie is not. The Bible never addresses, “When you gather together to make movies, here is what you must do.” Movies are an expression of art, just like music. A Christian songwriter can have a song about Jesus, a song about his marriage, a song about his cat: Does every song have to be about Jesus?

When we take Christian artists and put them in such a tight box, in which the only valid expression is an overtly biblical expression, that’s not right.

RW: As an artist do you sometimes feel suffocated by the Christian community?

Vischer: Honestly, many do. I know many Christian artists that just can’t take it. They walk away from the Christian world and get on with their art. I am more a teacher than an artist, which is why I have been so happy making Veggie Tales, where a tomato gets down on his knees and says, “God made you special and loves you very much.” At the end of the day, I’ve got more Mr. Rogers in me than van Gogh.

RW: How do you manage to stay in a community that sometimes says you’re “not Christian enough?”

Vischer: The first time you create a work of art you feel God has called you to create, and Christians criticize it, it really takes you aback. You think, “I’m one of you. I’m just doing what I think is right.” The hundredth time, you’re pretty much fine with it.

People are so diverse in their beliefs, regardless of how they self-identify on a survey, that you cannot please all the people any of the time. And that’s fine. My responsibility is to steward what God has given me. He’s given me the ability to tell stories, so I’m going to tell stories. I have a conviction about what I think kids need to learn growing up, and I’m going to put those in my stories.

I see so many kids running around with swords and capes and wanting to be heroes; by the time they’re 30, they’re just sitting on the couch watching ESPN. How did that happen? When did they give up? At the same time there are people tromping around Africa fighting AIDS or feeding kids in the inner city. I’m trying to figure out to get more kids to move from, “When I’m 30 I’m going to be a big Bears fan,” to “When I’m 30 I’m going to save the world.”

RW: But no matter what the message, even if they are watching your movie, the kids are still watching a screen. Some might find that ironic.

Vischer: Correct. But that’s where kids are, and you have to go where they are to talk to them. It’s easy to stand outside and yell and holler and rant against the system, but if the TV’s up too loud no one will hear you.

The trick is to get into the media and then encourage moderate use of the media, which Hollywood will never do because that would be self-defeating, because their highest calling is financial, which means more media consumption is always the better. For me I tend to look at the media as a runaway horse, out of control and trampling over people, but you can’t steer it unless you’re on it.

The question is, “How do I get on the horse?” Not so I can enjoy trampling over people and making all the money I can, but so I can grab the reins and say, “Slow down.” If Nickelodeon came up once an hour and reminded the kids that another hour had gone by and maybe it’s time to turn off the TV, that would be great.

What I want to do with TV is use it as a tool to reduce the consumption of TV. Since other people will not let you do that on their network, you need to have your own.

Coming on Thursday on ReligionWriter: More conversation with Phil Vischer on his Christian-media background and why his mother made him promise never to represent Jesus Christ as a vegetable.

There Are 7 Responses So Far. »

  1. From Les

  2. Though I am eighty, I have enjoyed the Veggie Tale CDs since I got the opportunity to watch them with my grandchildren. I find them very Christian, even when there is no “preaching” there. Trying to live your life the biblical way, love your neighbour, rely on God [as David, Esther, and others did] is a testimony. The world needs Jesus like acts performed by simple people. When and how should children learn to distinguish good from wrong? God bless Vischer and all the makers of his works. I am looking forward to their future films.

  3. I’m a senior citizen and I look forward to seeing this film

    My first exposure to Veggie Tales was “you must be kidding” but since then have enjoyed the characters,themes,stories along with my grand kids. My adult college educated kids also enjoy the productions.

    I am in full agreement with Mr Vischer in his approach to “Christian” movies. You will never please all the Christian community, regardless of how you present scriptural truths. God has given this man a real gift and I am happy to view the results.

  4. […] week, ReligionWriter reviewed the new Veggie Tales movie, The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, which is out in theaters […]

  5. […] more, read this interview with Vischer: What Makes a Movie “Christian?” […]

  6. My three children and their friends were raised on Veggie Tales (along with other Christian materials for kids, yet Veggie Tales being a favorite), and they have become some of the finest young adults serving the Lord God whole-heartedly to this day. No matter what mistakes were made in the handling of the company business, God has used mightily the efforts of the gifted team who produced the series.

    May the Lord’s redemption manifest to reconcile the breaches and heal the past for Mr. Vischer and his former employees. On behalf of my family I bless Phil Vischer, and I can’t wait for my future grandbabies to be born so I can share with them and their friends laughs over the delightfully presented Biblical precepts of the Veggie Tales. :) Meanwhile I and my grown children will probably make a date to see this current movie!

  7. Hi, interesting read! Good points.

    Re movies and values, I have just watched “I am Legend” with my wife. NOT a fan of vampire stuff BUT knowing Will Smith was in it and appreciating original book by Richard Matheson made me think ‘this will be done well’… I was really impressed that the film has taken the concept and reworked it excellently.

    I love Veggie Tales as an adult. I have been thinking last year (since I adore wordplay) that “Carrots of the Pi-ribbean” would be a neat Veggie Tales title… seems someone else was thinking similarly…

    Looking forward to see it! And, good wisches to Vischer - with thankness for frankness…

Post a Response

FireStats icon Powered by FireStats