Phil Vischer shares regrets about Veggie Tales – and how he's making it right

by Michael Foust, Guest Reviewer |

CHICAGO (Christian Examiner) -- Phil Vischer has heard the critics of his popular Veggie Tales films -- and he actually agrees with many of them.

Vischer created the first Veggie Tales in the early 1990s alongside business partner Mike Nawrocki, featuring Vischer's voice as Bob the Tomato and Nawrocki as Larry the Cucumber. The series' popularity, it's safe to say, exceeded their expectations, with the revenue for parent company Big Idea growing from $1.3 million in 1996 to $44 million in 1999.

The cartoons were popular among many Christian families but also also were criticized for being shallow and for deviating from Scripture.

Big Idea declared bankruptcy in 2003, and since then Vischer has been trying to make up for what he believes Veggie Tales lacked. In 2010 he launched "What's In The Bible?," a 13-part DVD series starring a character named Buck Denver who explores the Old and New Testaments in more detail than even many adult Sunday School classes reach. He calls it a Christianity 101 for kids.

"Galaxy Buck," is Vischer's latest project, the first of which releases on DVD Oct. 20 and helps children see faith in action – or as Vischer said, "what walking with Jesus actually looks like."

"When I launched 'Veggie Tales,' I was 24 years old," Vischer told the Christian Examiner. "My initial goal was to see if I could make a film successfully. My secondary goal was, 'If I can make a film, can I put Sunday School values in it?' And that ended up going really, really well. My thought was that once I've established that and I have an actual studio, then I'll take kids deeper."

That, though, didn't happen. Instead, he says, the popularity of Veggie Tales meant he was buried in multiple meetings, making decisions about everything from human resources hires to whether Walmart could sell Veggie Tales garden gloves.

"And it became so consuming that I completely lost the freedom of time to plot: How do we go deeper? So when I lost Veggie Tales and Big Idea, one of my first responses when my head finally stopped spinning, was, 'Wait a minute, did I just spend 10 years persuading kids to behave Christianly without teaching them Christianity?' And that just stopped me in my tracks, and that led directly to 'What's In The Bible.' I can't just tell kids to behave like Christians. I have to teach them the tenants of the faith."

The first episode of "Galaxy Buck" is titled "Mission to Sector 9" and spotlights the Galactic Mission Board as it takes the Gospel to the far reaches of the Galaxy.

"It was kind of inspired by the 19th century British missions movement, of Livingston and Hudson Taylor and those guys going places no one else had gone before to carry the love of God," Vischer said.

The church, he said, tends to "underestimate what kids are capable of learning" about their faith.

The Christian Examiner recently spoke with Vischer about his current projects and his past with Veggie Tales. Following is a partial transcript:

Christian Examiner: "Galaxy Buck" uses puppets. Tell us why you chose puppets.

Vischer: I used computer animation for about 10 years with Veggie Tales. When I started with Veggie Tales, it was about five years before "Toy Story." So kids had never seen computer animation before. It was really easy to impress them even with a very low budget. Ten years later, there were 10 to 15 computer animated movies coming out each year that had budgets of $75 million to $150 million, and it became very clear that it was very hard to impress kids with low-budget computer animation. But at the same time, I'm noticing kids going home and watching cat videos on YouTube and laughing just as hard. And I thought, "OK, the world is going in two directions." One direction is massively budgeted films. And the other direction is homemade handcrafted stuff that you can make in your garage and put on YouTube. My creative inspirations growing up were, No. 1, Walt Disney, and No. 2, Jim Henson. I have been playing with puppets since I was about six years old.

Christian Examiner: Why are kids still attracted to basic puppetry when we also have elaborate movies?

Vischer: You can have a character you don't have to pretend is real. You know it's not real but it can be funny. Kermit the Frog is a painfully simple puppet. Jim Henson made the original Kermit the Frog out of his mother's green coat that she no longer wore. I enjoy, with kids, taking a ball cap or taking the end of my jacket sleeve and turning it into a puppet. And young kids are just entranced that you've brought this thing to life that should not be talking. That's the fun of puppetry – bringing something simple to life.

Christian Examiner: What do you want children to learn from this first "Galaxy Buck" episode?

Vischer: If you launch yourself on an adventure of living with Jesus, walking with Jesus, the very first thing you need to let go of is your own goals, your will. The journey starts with dying to yourself. Jesus said "take up your cross and follow me." We don't promote that idea very much in church because it doesn't sound fun. Yet it's so vital, because we're taught in our culture to never let go of your dreams, never let go of your desires, to pursue what you want at all costs. That's very American. But it's not very Christian. I was trying to show through the story of "Buck Denver," launching his own journey, that it's very hard to follow God if you're chasing your dreams. That's a really important lesson for kids to learn.

Christian Examiner: Do you fear that we're not digging deep enough with children in what we teach them about Christianity?

Vischer: Yes. We're at an attractional model of children's ministry -- you can land a whole family if you can appeal to the kids. And to appeal to the kids you want to make it as fun as you possibly can, and going deep doesn't sound like fun. So when I speak to kids ministry workers, the point I'm trying to make from my own experience is that kids can go deeper than you think. And when I talk to senior pastors, I say their parents are less willing to go deep than you would hope. So we underestimate what kids are capable of learning. We overestimate what their parents are interested in learning. So we're giving kids a superficial Christianity, assuming when they're all grown up they'll get the meat of it, which doesn't happen. And we end up with superficial adults. I'm very intentionally trying to push kids. I would rather go too deep and lose some, than raise another generation of superficial Christians.

Christian Examiner: So you're saying that some of these newer projects go deeper than their parents would go with their children?

Vischer: Oh, definitely. We've got people using "What's In The Bible?" in adult small groups. The very first episode answers questions like, "What's the Septuagint?" We've had parents come to us, saying, "I don't want to admit it to my kids but I'm learning as much as they are."

Christian Examiner: What is your involvement today with Veggie Tales?

Vischer: Voices, and that's it. I'm the voices of about half of the characters. But right now the only Veggie Tales that are in production are shorts for Netflix.

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