Jim Hill takes a closer look at the success of the Big Idea VeggieTales series.
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Back to the Drawing BoardBig Idea: Honest to God, These Stories are Funny as Hell
by Jim Hill

In honor of Big Idea's latest release -- "Lyle the Kindly Viking" -- as well as the company's forthcoming theatrical release -- "Jonah," Jim Hill tries to explain the quirky pleasures to be found when one watches the "VeggieTales" and "3-2-1 Penguins" video series.

In his stand-up act, comedian George Carlin does a wonderful piece of material about sentences that he's sure have never been spoken before. Among the examples he cites are:

"Hand me that piano."

"Please help me saw my legs off."

And "Do what you want with the girl, but leave me alone!"

Well, in the great George Carlin tradition, I'm now going to write a sentence that I'm pretty sure has never been written before: "These children's bible stories are funny as hell."

And yet -- as unlikely as the above sentence may seem -- it's completely true, folks. At least when it comes to children's bible stories as they're told by the crew at Big Idea.

And what exactly is Big Idea? It's this neat little computer animation company that operates out of that happening 'burg; Lombard, IL. The folks at Big Idea have discovered this very interesting thing: that there's actually a market out there for quality children's programming of a spiritual nature. Provided -- of course -- that this programming mixes spirituality with equal amounts of silliness.

3-2-1 PenguinsSlight disclaimer here: Before any of you Digital Media FX readers get confused and think that I'm just championing Big Idea and its spiritual line of products just because their video tapes do an excellent job of spreading the word of the Gospel ... Let me blunt here, folks: I am *NOT* a religious person. I can't remember the last time I was inside a church. And given the way I've been behaving lately, I'd have to assume that -- if there is indeed an after-life -- that I'm in the express line to Hell. You know? Down to three virtues or less?

That said, I *STILL* find the stuff that the folks at Big Idea churn out highly entertaining. (Congratulations, guys! You just cracked the agnostic market.)

So what is it that makes the programs that Big Idea puts out so entertaining to right-minded religious folks as well as heathens like myself? It's simple, really. Not since the late Charles Schulz was working at the very top of his game while drawing his acclaimed "Peanuts" comic strip has there been something that was this silly but profound. Others have made comparisons between the VeggieTales characters and the late Jim Henson's Muppets. Each features a lovable bunch of misfits who alternately be sweet & gentle but still wildly funny.

Personally, I think Bob the Tomato and the Little French Peas have quite a bit in common with Bert, Ernie and the rest of the "Sesame Street" gang. After all, each of these sets of characters has an ability to make education painless. The viewers are so busy being entertained that they hardly have time to realize that they've just inadvertently learned something.

Yeah, let's not forget about entertainment, folks. Because that's the real beauty of Big Idea's "VeggieTales" and "3-2-1 Penguins" series. These programs obviously play at several different levels. There's enough broad humor to hold the kids' interest. And yet I've also noticed there's a lot of sly, snarky material that the animators must be slipping just to increase the adult appeal of the "VeggieTale" programs.

Take -- for instance -- Big Idea's latest production, "Lyle the Kindly Viking: A Lesson in Sharing." Sure, youngsters will get a chuckle out of Larry the Cucumber's heartfelt rendition of Lyle the Kindly Viking"My High Silk Hat." But was it really the under-six set that Big Idea's animators were aiming for when they opened this segment of the "Viking" video with a Forest Gump tribute?

And who else but the folks at Big Idea would figure out a way within a VeggieTales version of "Hamlet" (Only this time around, Shakespeare's tragedy is titled "Omelet." And the storyline deals with a prince who can't seem to decide whether he wants to share his fluffy cooked eggs with the hungry people of his kingdom) to do a "Battleship" joke? "2B"? "No. It's not 2B."

Or how about the centerpiece of Big Idea's latest VeggieTales video: the tender tale of Lyle the kindly Viking. Lyle (played winningly by Junior Asparagus) doesn't want to be like the rest of the horde, who roam around the high seas in search of big screen television to swipe. This diminutive dane would much rather share his few meager possessions with the rest of the world. Which -- near as I can figure it -- consists of a paper bag full of handmade pot-holders.

So what's so funny about this idea? Did I mention that "Lyle the Kindly Viking" is supposed to be Gilbert & Sullivan's long-lost last opera? So now the vegetables must sing their way through this story.

This concept really confuses poor Larry, who thinks that -- just because he's performing in an operetta -- he now has to sing everything. This leads to some embarrassing (but really funny) Big Idea animator drawing a character from its Esther videomoments for the cucumber, particularly when Larry belts out "I have to go to the bathroom."

Okay, so we're not exactly dealing with high class stuff here. Is a lot of the humor featured on the VeggieTales tapes juvenile? Sure. But keep in mind Big Idea's target audience. Then note the skill that the production team uses to quickly slide that spiritual homily in at the end of the program. The credits are already underway before you realize "Hey, did I just learn that it was important to share?"

Long-time fans of the VeggieTales videos will notice an obvious improvement in the art direction of "Lyle the Kindly Viking." Though the latest installment (To date, there are 15 tapes in the series) stays true to the look and styling of all the VeggieTales programs that have go before it, "Lyle" still makes better use of CGI's ability to manipulate color and lighting. In fact, there's a shot at the end of the tape's "Kindly Viking" sequence (where the longboat full of happy, reformed vikings -- who are no longer the "Terrors of the Sea" but now the "Sharers of the Sea" -- sail off into a golden sunset) that's downright beautiful.

Besides this obvious improvement in production design, what other biggest innovation can be found on Big Idea's latest production, "Lyle the Kindly Viking: A Lesson in Sharing" ? Well, this is the first program that the Lombard, IL company has put out on video as well as DVD. The DVD features some great behind-the-scenes stuff. You can watch interviews with "Lyle" 's director, Tim Hodges or Big Idea founder Phil Vischer. Or you can compare several storyboards that the Big Idea team cooked up for "Kindly Viking" sequences to finished footage from the same film.

In addition to entering the DVD market, Big Idea has other big plans for the future. Look for the company's first feature length project -- a VeggieTales movie based on the story of Jonah and the whale -- to hit theaters in 2002. The Big Idea crew (now 200 strong) is also supposedly trying to decide if Larry & Bob are ready for prime time. There's been talk for more than a year now of a VeggieTales holiday special or even a weekly television series.

3-2-1 Penguins Concept SketchNot bad for a bunch of escapees from the produce aisle, eh? Or a computer animation production company that -- just eight short years ago -- consisted of three guys working out of Phil Vischer's spare bedroom.

If you still don't believe that -- and I'm quoting the VeggieTales theme song here -- "a squash can make you smile," don't take my word for it. (After all, what the hell do I know? I'm just a heathen). Go find yourself a copy of one of Big Idea's VeggieTales or "3-2-1 Penguins" videos. Then slap the thing into your VCR and see for yourself how funny a Bible story (particularly one that features a cucumber that thinks he's a super hero) can be.

Click here to discuss this column in the dFX Forums.

Jim Hill is an award winning journalist who specializes in writing about the entertainment industry. Hill's columns appear on Digital Media FX on the 2nd and 16th of each month. Those subscribed to the free Digital Media FX newsletter receive 24 hour advanced access to the columns before the general public.

Based out of a log cabin hidden away in the woods of New Hampshire, Jim is currently at work on an unauthorized history of the Walt Disney World Resort. In addition, he writes for several online Websites. He has a beautiful 7 year old daughter and three obnoxious cats.

You can email Jim Hill at stadlerhill@mindspring.com.

All editorialized columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX, its partner sites, and its advertisers.

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