Telling the story of God’s unconditional love

Next week a brand new VeggieTales DVD will be released, “Beauty and the Beet.” In this new show, a Veggie twist of the classic story Beauty and the Beast, Mirabelle (voiced by country music’ Kellie Pickler) and her family band, the Veggie Tones, are on their way to life-changing, career-promoting gig at Vegetable Square Garden. In the midst of a snowstorm, their car breaks down, and they find themselves singing for their supper for the cranky hotel manager Mr. Beet.

MikeMike Nawrocki, the co-creator of VeggieTales and the voice of Larry the Cucumber, told me today in a phone interview, that the inspiration for “Beauty and the Beet” came directly from 1 John 4:11:

Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. (Common English Bible)

Kellie Pickler, the former American Idol finalist, has been told that she sounds like a cartoon character. In “Beauty and the Beet,” she is given the chance to make that a reality. Mirabelle is a sweet potato with a sweet song to sing, which includes eight of the original ten songs in the film. The vocals were why they reached out to Kellie to carry the film. It turned out, as Mike says, that she is a “wonderful, charming actor and character voice. I was thrilled to work with her.”

Beauty-and-the-beet-cover-art“It’s a lot of fun and its a story about loving the unlovable,” Mike told me. Which has really been the driving force behind VeggieTales. This is the twenty-first year that Mike and his co-creator Phil Vishcer have produced VeggieTales. Their first was “Where is God When I’m Scared?” and it was a direct to VHS (remember those?) release December 21, 1993. Then, in 2006 VeggieTales appeared on NBC as part of its Saturday morning children’s programming.

It is hard to believe that it all started with Phil (the voice of Bob the Tomato) and Mike (the voice of Larry the Cucumber) in college doing campus ministry. In fact, the friendship between Bob and Larry reflects the friendship between Phil and Mike. They were both big fans of Jim Henson. With that inspiration, they would take puppets out, creating voices for them, sharing the unconditional love of God with others. While those puppets didn’t make the transition to VeggieTales, many of the voices did, including Mike’s Larry.

The college years was really where the idea of reaching people for God got started. Mike felt a call to ministry in high school, yet, as he says, “had no idea what that looked like.” Mike went to college to become a medical missionary, but God redirected him. “Most kids,” he says, “don’t grow up thinking they’ll be a cucumber.”

This calling led to telling stories that communicate a God who made us all and loves us very much. “We live in a world,” Mike told me, “where God made us and loves us and that is important to remind kids of.” It is a message that is often missing from the media that kids consume. Mike says, “It’s an okay thing to believe and to feel supported.”

mainThe VeggieTales stories are not only massively popular with children and their parents. Youth leaders use them with their youth groups, and college students are having dorm parties where they watch VeggieTales. “With the heart of the lesson,” Mike says, “we try to tell the story that a four-year-old can understand.” He goes on to say, “When we try to boil down a story,” they make sure that “it’s a good story that people can hook into.” Mike also admits that the humor, which is “all over the place,” helps the stories communicate across the generations. It is the fulfillment of the call to tell stories that connect people to the unconditional love of God that has become a reality.

Yet, there is another reality that must be acknowledged: the reality of the marketplace. While VeggieTales are great stories communicating great values, it is a business. “The reality is,” Mike says, that they get to “tell stories relevant to people in a product that [the people] will buy so that it will enable to make more stories.” Without the consumer, it is not possible for them to continue making the stories. The reality is that they have to make money, or at least break even, in order to continue following their call to tell these stories. Not only that, but also “keeping up with technology,” Mike tells me as he shares about the new VeggieTales series called “VeggieTales in the House,” premiering on Thanksgiving weekend on Netflix.  Now owned by DreamWorks, who made a deal to produce material for Netflix, Big Idea has been selected do a large block of half-hour shows that will only be found on Netfilx.

So many young people experience a call to ministry when in high school and/or college, much like Mike did. I asked him what advice he would give these young people. “Tell them,” he said, “to be open to God moving in your life.” He shared how the story of Esther was a confirmation for his own call. The “idea that God was able to call her and use her to save her people ‘at such a time as this'” was important to Mike. “We can prepare and work hard and move toward our goals,” he said, “but be willing to be open to God to change, to make some adjustments.”

And there have been quite a few adjustments in Mike and Phil’s VeggieTales journey.  From the beginning days of VHS to the streaming days of Netflix, the purpose has always been “to tell stories and lessons with Biblical values,” Mike said. Kids, he continued, need to know that “God loves them and they are special.” And that theme is continued in the new “Beauty and the Beet.”

Beauty-and-the-Beet-picAs Mirabelle says in the film, “God loves us all, whether we deserve it or not.”

“Beauty and the Beet” will be available on DVD and digital download on October 14, 2012.