“Holy asparagus! “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie,” the first feature inspired by the bestselling made-for-video kidpics starring parable-spinning produce, has enough mainstream appeal to garner a healthy B.O. harvest in a season notably bereft of other family-friendly fare. Ancillary biz will be even more abundant.
Much like episodes of the immensely popular Big Idea Prods. vid series, pic offers a mixed salad of Bible-based homilies, clever wordplay, antic silliness and vibrant CGI animation. The religious themes are sounded with unabashed clarity, but not so insistently as to transform the enterprise into a Sunday School lesson.
Indeed, unlike most recent live-action fare (“The Omega Code,” “Left Behind”) aimed primarily at evangelic Christians and similarly religious auds, “Jonah” uses humor and high spirits to entertain while spreading the Good Word. Much of this slick and sprightly CGI feature is sufficiently funny to amuse even the most resolutely unreligious parents who escort their little ones to megaplex screenings.
VeggieTale creators Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki, who provide most of the character voices, share directorial and screenwriting chores for “Jonah,” a fanciful retelling of the biblical story about the reluctant prophet who’s briefly trapped inside a big fish. The story is effectively introduced by VeggieTale vegetables — including Dad Asparagus, Bob the Tomato and others — who figure prominently in modern-day sequences that bookend the main story.
In this version, Jonah is played by VeggieTale regular Archibald Asparagus as a fussy fellow who’s extremely proud to serve as a messenger of God — but only until God asks Jonah to take His message to Nineveh, a sinful city where the inhabitants gorge themselves on Cheesy Curl snacks and slap each other silly with huge fish.
While making his way across arid deserts and stormy seas, Jonah is aided and abetted by the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, a trio of raucous, root beer-guzzling buccaneers (played by VeggieTale characters Pa Grape, Larry the Cucumber and Mr. Lunt) and Khalil, a new addition to the VeggieTale lineup. He’s a cheery carpet salesman who’s half-worm, half-caterpillar and all-around nice guy.
Like the VeggieTale vids, “Jonah” adheres to an oddball internal logic. The herbaceous heroes lack arms and legs, so they progress by bouncing instead of walking. And, of course, they can’t actually carry parchments or handle steering wheels because they lack hands. But in the world devised by Vischer and Nawrocki, objects conveniently move, spin or float for the VeggieTale characters. Miraculous? Maybe so.
Vischer and Nawrocki pay sly tribute to their obvious mentors, members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with healthy doses of Pythonesque lunacy. (Guards at the gate of Nineveh are delightfully reminiscent of equally surly French guys in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”) There’s also a touch of “South Park” here and there, most notably in the introduction of cheese-flavored junk food as a plot device.
The CGI wizardry is dazzling enough to impress adults and delight small children, enhancing the overall charm of the briskly paced 82-minute pic.
Eclectic song score runs the gamut from relentlessly uplifting, instantly forgettable ditties to rousing gospel-flavored showstoppers. Funniest tune is saved for the very end and serves as gleefully satirical commentary on tunes usually played under closing credits.