Passing on Values: Interview with Phil Vischer of VeggieTales
Phil Vischer is probably best known as the squeaky voice of Bob the Tomato, animated co-host on the popular VeggieTales video series. But Vischer has other interests: co-creator of the program, he also penned the screenplay for The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie. This represents two significant movie firsts: it is the first VeggieTales film to be distributed by a major Hollywood studio and it is Universal’s first computer-animated theatrical release.
A well-known vehicle for Christian values entertainment, VeggieTales has not always had a smooth road. After releasing Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie in 2003, Big Idea Productions, Inc. went bankrupt, and in 2006, its Saturday morning cartoon, Qubo, endured some controversy when NBC asked that episodes be edited to remove all references to God, a request that drew criticism from the Christian conservative watchdog group, Parents Television Council.
Vischer talked with PopMatters about all things VeggieTales, and revealed that it is by no means your garden variety cartoon.
Would you say writing is your favorite part of what you do, or do you enjoy voice work for the characters just as much?
Voice work is fun, but it’s really tiring because I’m an introvert. So to push the energy for those characters can be exhausting. The writing is fun. I also enjoy what they call the “story reel” phase, where you draw the scripts on the storyboards and you start really pacing the movie. I think a lot of movies live or die based on their pacing, and that happens in animation before a single animator has involved.
How long had the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything story been in the back of your mind before you wrote it?
It actually wasn’t in my mind at all; I just liked those characters. We had so much fun with them in Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, even doing the bonus features on the Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie DVD, just playing around with the pirates that we thought, “Wow, they maybe deserve their own adventure!” It was hard because they are the pirates that don’t do anything, and Storytelling 101 says your protagonist needs to have a strong desire for something—something that motivates them. That’s why slacker movies aren’t that much fun to watch; there’s a protagonist that doesn’t really want to do anything. So I had to kind of rewrite their back stories, change them from happy slackers to slackers with a longing to be more than just that, which I was much happier with. You can’t just create a story for kids and promote slacker-ism. So I had to reshape their characters entirely and come up with a motive for them. What did they really want? They want to be heroes, but they have no idea how. Which I think is true for a lot of us.
How much of your own experience went into their story?
Each of the three main characters has some kind of a flaw, something that prevents him from rising up in life and accomplishing and becoming what God would want him to become. And I think each of their flaws resonates with me in a different way. Whether it’s laziness, or not believing in yourself and having no self-confidence, or fearfulness. Larry the Cucumber is terrified of everything. I’m not terrified of everything. He’s terrified of wicker furniture, which has never been an issue for me. Pa Grape’s character flaw is that he backs down too easily. He knows what’s right and he wants to do what’s right but he gets right up to the edge of doing it and somebody looks at him cross-eyed and he just loses all his confidence. And I think I was that way quite a bit when I was a kid.
What kind of relationship do you have with Universal?
We have a pretty good one. Technically, Universal released all the DreamWorks movies, so they released the first two Shrek movies and everything that DreamWorks has done. But they haven’t produced any of them themselves; they were just acquisitions from DreamWorks. So I guess this might be the first one where they’ve ever been involved this deeply. They were very helpful because they’ve got great story people that just live and die reading scripts and making comments and saying, “Mmm, a little too long, a little too short, a little too this, a little too that.” So we ended up with a very good back-and-forth relationship with them. They were very helpful.
Was Big Idea’s bankruptcy related to the Jonah release?
No, it wasn’t. But it was related to a lawsuit with our former distributor [Lyrick Studios] that came at the worst possible time. The timing of it was we had completely funded Jonah ourselves. So all of our money was wrapped up in Jonah, and then we ended up in a lawsuit at the same time, which we lost, and the judge awarded $11 million in damages. And then 18 months later, the appeals court threw out the verdict and said, “No, that’s ridiculous. Big Idea Productions didn’t do anything wrong.” But it was too late. In the middle having tied up all of our money in our first movie, we ended up in a lawsuit that we couldn’t recover from.
What can you tell me about the whole Qubo controversy? Is that settled or is it something that still sticks in your craw?
Well, it doesn’t seem to be a controversy anymore. I think everyone moved on and stopped talking about it. I’m still not thrilled about how it came down, simply because I thought we’d still be able to talk about God in those shows, which is why I got involved in that project. And then we found out, after we were already committed and starting to deliver the episodes, that, “Oh no! You can’t say ‘God’ on NBC.” And since then, I’m not doing any more episodes. Big Idea has somebody else doing adaptations of the old episodes for NBC because I didn’t want to do them. They seem to have loosened up a bit and are allowing a little more of the Christian content to stay in, which is a good thing.
How much appeal do you think the series has to people that may not be Christians?
We don’t know for sure how many VeggieTales fans are non-Christians. That kind of research was never done. But anecdotally, we get a lot of stories from Jewish families, families of different faiths, or families of no particular faith at all who were looking for a way to pass on values to their kids. And because Biblical values tend to be kind of the underpinnings of Western civilization, they had no problem with it at all. Some of our episodes talk specifically about Jesus. Our Easter and Christmas episodes don’t work for some of those people at all. And I wasn’t necessarily trying to do something that would work for everyone because if you try to appeal to everyone, you very often appeal to no one. My first goal was to help Christian parents pass values onto their kids. And the fact that it went far beyond that is really cool. God can do amazing things. I’m all for it.
Are you surprised at how far the series has come since you started it?
For the first five years, every year I kind of thought, “Well, I don’t think we can get any bigger than this.” And then the next year, suddenly we sold twice as many videos as we did the year before. And I’d think, “Wow, I don’t think we can get any bigger than this.” And then the next year, we’d sell twice as many videos again. It was just amazing to combine the kind of humor and storytelling that people like, with the values that resonate for everybody.
I read that you consider your work a ministry first, and a business second.
It’s always been the case for me, and will always be the case. There are a lot of ways you can put food on the table. This was never about that.