First of all, I know all about VeggieTales’ weaknesses. I know they are Christianity Lite at best. I know they take Bible stories and retell them in cartoonish versions that are a wisp of a shadow of the real thing.
But I also know that VeggieTales shows are among the best long-running animated series ever produced. They not only match the quality of the secular shows of the past several decades – they far exceed it. And they do it for Christ.
When my generation grew up, we watched the Smurfs, Super Friends and Scooby-Doo. They were cheaply animated formulaic stories that relied on their premise for their interest, and didn’t add much to it with each story. When it came to Christian entertainment, we had nothing. The Catholic cartoons of the 1970s and 1980s were far below even the Hanna-Barbera standard (until CCC, that is).
The next generation had Cable TV – Rugrats and SpongeBob SquarePants and then endless empty shows on the Disney Channel and the Cartoon Network. By the time my children came along, television was so toxic that many parents did what we did, and simply turned it off.
Kids’ entertainment seemed to teach nothing more than how to be a consumerist: The characters, commercials and previews of upcoming shows were designed to give children a relativistic, individualistic mindset that moved them, step by step, through an entertainment system leading from SpongeBob to Britney Spears; Rugrats to Rihanna; Hannah Montana to Miley Cyrus.
But those of us who dropped out of The System were not left without entertainment resources. We had VeggieTales. And not only was the story about anthropomorphic vegetables more wholesome than those other shows – it was funnier, more human and more inventive.
There are a few duds in the bunch, but very few. My own favorites are “King George and the Ducky” with its surprising take on the David and Bathsheba story and “Lyle the Kindly Viking,” which opens with the Hamlet parody “Omelet” (including a game of Battleship: “2b?” “Not 2b.”) My kids’ favorite, of course, is “Lord of the Beans,” pitting Toto and Randalf against Scaryman and his army of Sporks.
Then there are the Silly Songs. The songs are so detail-rich and evocative, a whole movie was based on one: “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.”
Many of the silly songs are old classics … of the 1990s. For instance, there’s the folksy 1993 “Water Buffalo Song,” which promises, “Everybody’s got a water buffalo , yours is fast but mine is slow,” causing Archibald to worry about angry letters: “You can’t say that everybody’s got a water buffalo, when everyone does not have a water buffalo!”
There’s the bilingual Latin number “The Dance of the Cucumber” from 1995 that serves as a Spanish lesson. In it, Larry the Cucumber sings his own praises in Spanish, translated by Bob the Tomato, who ends outraged when the lyrics “pity the poor tomato.”
The songs come in every style: the operatic “Barbara Manatee,” the boy-band parody “Belly Button”and the irresistible “Song of the Cebu” – Larry’s “multimedia event” (a characterization Archbibald questions) which comes also in a dance remix.
Late at night in Catholic dorm rooms from coast to coast, students are staying up late swapping their favorite cherished Silly Songs and Veggie moments. They aren’t doing that with He-Man and She-Ra.
In a recent interview with World magazine, Veggie creator Phil Vischer admits the faults of the stories. There was a point halfway through his career when he decided “I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. … But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality.”
However, the interview shows what he got, right, too. The old secular shows taught kids faux-profound life lessons: Believe in yourself, don’t take life too seriously, you yourself define who you are and above all, follow your dreams. Since the sponsors provided the dreams, too, these shows were essentially designed to turn kids into superficial suckers for the consumerist culture.
Vischer (and VeggieTales) proposes God’s will as the great lodestar of our lives instead. Putting our life in a larger context may make us less likely to buy products – but it will make us more likely to find happiness.
“There’s something wrong in a culture that preaches nothing is more sacred than your dream,” Vischer said. “I mean, we walk away from marriages to follow our dreams. We abandon children to follow our dreams. We hurt people in the name of our dreams, which as a Christian is just preposterous.”
But I think VeggiesTales’ greatest gift is its sheer quality. It taught our kids that Christianity should be expressed with humanity, humor and professionalism.
We have yet to find out what Christians raised on that “big idea” will come up with.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications department and edits the college’s Catholic identity speech digest, The Gregorian.