Monday, December 1, 2014

VeggieTales In the House Review

I saw my first VeggieTales episode when I was a freshman in high school, and I was instantly hooked. By that time there were already several videos (really -- they were VHS tapes). Me and some church friends loved them so much, even as teenagers, we put together VeggieTales parties. We even had unsaved friends that came and could sing the songs with the rest of us.

I remember falling on the floor in fits of laughter with my siblings when we first heard Song of the Cebu. Then we watched it over and over until we had it completely memorized. I can still quote almost entire episodes, including one of my favorites, Tale of Two Cities, based on the parable of the Good Samaritan. I was a VeggieTales kid when I was too old to be called a kid.

Though the Bible-based program has steadily diminished over the past decade (creator Phil Vischer lost the company in 2003), I was willing to give the new Netflix-exclusive series a taste. That series, called VeggieTales In the House, is fresh in terms of animation quality, but the Bible is more like dressing, and very little of it, compared to being the platter on which these Veggies were once served (okay, that's the only pun I'll attempt, I promise).

By definition, they've always been just an animated salad.

In that first golden decade of VeggieTales, they did lessons on being friends with those who are different than you (Are You My Neighbor?), relying on God to tame our fears (Where's God When I'm Scared?), being truthful and not lying (Larry Boy & the Fib from Outer Space), and forgiving others (God Wants Me to Forgive Them?), all rooted in scripture (that wasn't a pun).

They've done Bible stories like Joshua and the battle of Jericho (Josh and the Big Wall), Daniel and the lion's den (Where's God When I'm Scared?), Daniel's friends in the fiery furnace (Rack, Shack, and Benny), David and Goliath (Dave and the Giant Pickle), Esther (Esther, the Girl Who Became Queen), and of course the feature film, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.

The first episode of VeggieTales In the House is about how to care for a pet.

Yeah.

There's still a Bible verse wedged in there, but it's more eisegetical than ever -- meaning that a verse was just randomly picked to fit a story rather than trying to write a story to fit a Bible lesson.

Admittedly, VeggieTales has always been this way. In an interview with the Gospel Coalition, Vischer said, "[Christian] entertainment products typically follow the VeggieTales model: tell a story that illustrates a value, then wrap it up with a Bible verse to show the biblical basis for that value. We certainly need to teach kids biblical values, but biblical values aren't the gospel. Introducing a child to 'kindness' isn't equal to introducing him or her to Jesus."

But while the original VeggieTales was clearly Christian (WWUTT video plug), VeggieTales In the House is closer to moralism. In watching the five half-hour episodes that Netflix has introduced (which is basically ten 15-minute shorts), "God" is mentioned just a few times, and sometimes not at all. I heard "Lord" said in an episode, but "Jesus" never comes up. I don't think the word "Bible" was ever said either.

In one episode, Petunia says, "I'm pretty sure I read somewhere not to let the sun go down on your anger." That would be a reference to Ephesians 4:26. Why can't she just say, "The Bible says not to let the sun go down on your anger"? The script-writers are intentionally avoiding the use of that word.

In another episode, Bob says, "Remember that old chestnut from Ecclesiastes, 'Two are better than one, for they have a good reward for their work.'" Then Larry chimes in, "For if they fall, one will lift up the other." That's Ecclesiastes 4:9-10. Notice that it's a "chestnut" and not a "verse." How many kids know what an "Ecclesiastes" is or where it's found? And what kid says "old chestnut" to describe a saying?

Of the ten 15-minute toons, I think only three complete chapter-and-verse Bible references are made. A couple episodes don't use the Bible at all. One was just a lesson about having a good attitude and also good breath. Not kidding. Another episode I thought was going to skip the Bible verse entirely, but they managed to slip it into the last 20 seconds.

Every episode ends with Bob and Larry's trademark, "Remember kids, God made you special, and he loves you very much!" That's something, to say the least. When the VeggieTales cartoons aired on NBC a few years ago, the network edited that closing out.

Strengths

It's still pretty cute and there are laughs to be had, including a few throwback jokes to some of the earliest videos. As I said, the animation has improved. I also appreciate that VeggieTales In the House has attempted to keep the original voices of the characters long-time VeggieTales fans have come to recognize (except for Junior Asparagus, replaced with voice actress, Tress MacNeille).

The new Junior Asparagus! Er, wait...

Also, this is not just a pointless cartoon. They're actually trying to share more than just a comedic half-hour, even if the lesson is on the weak end of biblical. An episode about caring for a pet still places an emphasis on personal responsibility.

Weaknesses

So far, the songs. Which is unfortunate. I can still sing God Is Bigger Than the Boogie Man, I Can Be Your Friend, or I Love My Lips -- and who doesn't know the name VeggieTales and can't sing Oh, Where Is My Hairbrush? -- all songs from the VeggieTales of yesteryear. Yet I can't remember a single song I heard from the VeggieTales episodes I just watched a couple hours ago.

That includes the opening theme. It's not the waltz-with-potatoes-up-and-down-the-produce-aisle tuba song anymore. The song-breaks in the middle of episodes are even kind of awkward. VeggieTales was once iconic for its musical numbers (Phineas and Ferb totally copies the VeggieTales formula). The music has lost that luster. I hope that gets better.

Then there's the matter of there being no gospel whatsoever. It could be argued that VeggieTales never had the gospel, but even the original quoted John 3:16 and talked about Jesus. Not a single one of the five new episodes contains any Bible story. We're disappointed with the reduction in biblical content only because we've come to expect it of VeggieTales. Without the Bible, they're just talking vegetables -- which by itself is not such a Big Idea. (Okay, that was a pun.)

In case you didn't get the joke.

Final Verdict

Despite the obvious spiritual decline, it's still a good show for kids. Sure, it contains less Bible than it once had, but that shouldn't keep parents from letting their kids watch. It's an edifying cartoon from a Christian worldview. If you let your kids watch talking ninja turtles (mine do), then, yes, feed them some VeggieTales. Just don't expect this kind of cartoon to tell your kids about the Bible.

That's your job anyway, mom and dad. And when you teach them, make sure you teach the whole Bible. Help your children understand it's not just a book of moralistic quotes -- which is what Netflix has reduced it to with VeggieTales In the House. The cartoon contains just enough Bible to be wholesome, but not enough to be biblical.


For something that's more biblically educational for your kids, and entertaining for you as well, check out Phil Vischer's latest creation, What's In the Bible? The complete series would make a great Christmas gift!