[11 January 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
The villain in The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie has a mechanical arm. Plus legs, one of which is a peg featured prominently in an ominous low angle shot. These contraptions make Robert the Terrible (voiced by Cam Clarke) stand out from the crowd of other fruits and vegetables in which he moves. While everyone else is rolling, hopping, and jumping, limbless, Robert, who is a gourd, strides, stomps, and actually stands.
Introduced in the movie’s sort-of prelude, “somewhere in the 17th century,” Robert is a pirate, and rather terrible, relatively speaking. He’s the bad and very resentful brother to the good king (also voiced by Clarke), angling to get a piece of the realm. To that end, he kidnaps his own gourdy nephew and niece, Alexander (Yuri Lowenthal) and Eloise (Laura Gerow), and carries them off to a scary land that’s hard to find. Luckily for the good guys, Eloise sends off a gizmo called the Helpseeker just before she’s grabbed, which travels forward in time to now in order to find and bring back “heroes.”
These fellows will be familiar to those who have followed the VeggieTales saga in its various forms (TV, first movie, internet). That is, they are fruits and vegetables of the Christian persuasion (the parable most in evidence here is The Wizard of Oz), embodying faith-and-values, seeking to do right things even when they’re anxious or unprepared. Larry the Cucumber, Pa Grape, and Mr. Lunt the gourd are recast as Elliot, George, and Sedgewick, waiters at a dinner theater called Pieces of Ate. Grumbling that they want to act on stage with the other pirates, as opposed to delivering plates of what looks like vegetables to diners (the animation is crude, but the cannibalistic possibility here is a little creepy).
The aspiring heroes get their big chance when the Helpseeker whisks them off and plunks them down in a boat adrift in the 17th-century sea. From here they embark on adventures, visit a saloon (where they’re entertained by pirates who sing a song with the chorus, “Argh Argh Argh”), and try very hard to save the kidnapped gourds. The film’s pitch is low, age-wise (the not even half-full preview audience included five- and six-year-olds who laughed hardest at the couple of pee jokes, as when Sedgewick, after surviving a scary moment, reports, “I don’t have to go to the bathroom anymore!”). But for the most part, the jokes go sideways, not quite appealing to parents or kids, with what appears to be bothersome stereotyping.
The oldest wannabe hero, George, is not only concerned with his children’s opinions of him, but also, inexplicably eyeless, his face adorned with glasses to indicate where peepers might be imagined. You’re not doubt supposed to accept this image, just as you get used to the idea that the veggies are able to handles swords and remote controls and knives and forks without arms (these just sort of float around in the space where arms and hands would be). Whether or not there’s a metaphor at work for George’s initial moral or emotional blindness and eventual vision regarding his family remains unclear. (The wife, by the way, is apparently incidental to his relationships with his kids.)
More disturbing, however, is the film’s use of thumbnaily traits to mark what each hero needs most to fix about himself. If Elliot is fearful and George worried about his kids, Sedgewick is a broadly accented Latino whose “flaw” to be overcome is laziness. One version of this lesson to be learned concerns his especial affection for cheese curls, a weakness “cured” when he’s chased by a gaggle of orange curls with bright white teeth and snapping jaws who mean to eat him. While this might have seemed funny in early script stages, when these little monsters come at him the third or fourth time, the gag has most assuredly run its course.
As a riff on action movie clichés (leaping, sword-fighting, drinking ginger ale) or the recent popularity of Caribbean pirates, this version of the VeggieTales is innocuous, if not much fun. Young children appreciate all the bouncing shapes and bright colors (speaking of which, you might wonder why Robert the Terrible is a darker shade of green than any of his relatives), but anyone over six will be bored early and often.