Go with God: How VeggieTales creator parted ways with his characters

Posted 3/9/17

If you like to talk to tomatoes or if a squash can make you smile, then you probably have a kid in your life who loves “VeggieTales.”

Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber and their pals appeared …

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Go with God: How VeggieTales creator parted ways with his characters

Posted

If you like to talk to tomatoes or if a squash can make you smile, then you probably have a kid in your life who loves “VeggieTales.”

Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber and their pals appeared in 47 home videos and two feature films between 1993 and 2015.

The same characters currently appear in two series on Netflix. “VeggieTales in the House” premiered in 2014. It is currently in its fourth season. The follow-up, “VeggieTales in the City,” debuted Feb. 24.

The early “VeggieTales,” many of which were based on Bible stories, played like animated Sunday school lessons. Each one ended with Bob and Larry reminding young viewers that “God made you special, and He loves you very much.”

On Netflix, the two spend more time delivering punch lines and taking pratfalls than discussing Bible verses. The reason is an important change in the creative team.

Phil Vischer created Bob and Larry in 1990 and led Big Idea Productions, the animation studio behind “VeggieTales,” during its heyday. Although Vischer continues to provide the voice of Bob and several other characters on the Netflix series, he has not had creative control in more than a decade.

On a 2014 episode of his podcast, Vischer recalled standing outside a locked gate in Nashville, which became the new home of Big Idea after the company declared bankruptcy in 2003, during a housewarming party for Bob and Larry.

“I was standing at this fence looking in at the governor of Tennessee celebrating my characters, and no one even noticed that I was standing outside watching. It was like ‘Ok, God. I get it. I’m supposed to let go of this,’” Vischer said.

For several years before that, however, Vischer wholeheartedly believed that God was going to perform a miracle and redeem the management missteps and fiscal crisis that led to the downfall of Big Idea.

The trouble began when Vischer, buoyed by the gangbuster success of “VeggieTales” in the late ‘90s, set out to build a Disney company for Christians.

Big Idea’s staff size and expenses skyrocketed while its sales stagnated.

“Jonah,” the first “VeggieTales” movie, got the green-light with a $14 million budget — half of what it would eventually cost to make and market the film. The day after a big wrap party was held for the “Jonah” team, more than half of them received pink slips.

Even after Vischer had to approve a large bank loan to keep Big Idea’s doors open, he refused to pull the plug on “Jonah.” He was confident that God wanted this effort to succeed and would reward great faith (and questionable business sense).

The film had a solid showing at the box office but not enough to make back Big Idea’s investment. Then things went from bad to worse when the company was sued by distributor Lyrick Studios over an issue unrelated to “Jonah.” After a Texas jury found in Lyrick’s favor in 2003, Vischer’s dream of a Christian Disney company was dead. (The lawsuit was later overturned.)

The company changed hands several times in the next few years, according to Vischer’s retelling of the story in the 2014 podcast. Each time, the new owners would reach out to him and tentatively invite him back to the creative team, only to be replaced by more new owners before they could make good on their offer.

The current owner, DreamWorks Animation, employs him solely as a voice actor.

After “VeggieTales,” Vischer created the “What’s in the Bible?” video series, which takes young viewers on a journey from Genesis through Revelation.

He also wrote “Me, Myself and Bob” about his rollercoaster ride with Big Idea. According to Vischer, adult Christians have been impacted by his testimony as much as their preschoolers once were by “VeggieTales.”

“I’ve told my story about watching a dream die 100 times, and every time I get 40-year-old guys coming up to me in tears saying, ‘We always talk about our successes in church. We never talk about our failures. Thank you for putting theology behind failure,’” Vischer said on the podcast.

The season of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter, began last week. In some denominations, it’s common to give up something, usually a vice, as an act of penitence.

But as Vischer’s story illustrates, sometimes we’re asked to give up on good things too without knowing the reason why.

This week, I talked to several people dedicated to a dream they still believe in their heart is good, but the time has come to let it go.

Sometimes broken things get restored. Sometimes they don’t. We can trust and hope, but we don’t get to choose.

What we are left with is a phrase that has been passed down for centuries. Vaya con Dios. Go with God.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.