A friend asked me my thoughts on the new upcoming VeggieTales Netflix show. CAN OF WORMS = OPEN.
Doug Tennapel, most famous for Earthworm Jim and Catscratch, is currently one of the creative minds behind the latest VeggieTales installment – no, not another video special, but an entirely new animated series to be shown on Netflix. It’s all part of the company’s plan to feature more original material. Besides VeggieTales in the House, there will also be shows with characters from popular Dreamworks franchises, such as King Julian from Madagascar and Puss from the Shrek movies. I’m pretty excited about these, to be honest, because they represent a new era of animation and storytelling, a new genre in which to work and to enjoy, and more opportunities for aspiring writers and actors.
But VeggieTales? My childhood? Different? Question mark?
I was raised Christian, but my parents weren’t all that strict. I was allowed to watch pretty much whatever I wanted, which was mainly cartoons anyway, but it meant I could watch Davey and Goliath in the morning and The Simpsons at night with my family. But the reason VeggieTales was such a huge part of my life is because we didn’t have cable until 2005, and so I only had PBS and assorted video tapes to fill time between reading and playing with Beanie Babies, though I pretty much stopped watching Veggies around 2002. I’m not sure why, except maybe a small part of me felt that I was getting too old for it. (Though I still know nearly all the songs, and I quote random references all the time.) Interestingly, if you’ve ever read Phil Vischer’s posts on what happened to Big Idea, that was around the time the company shifted over to its new owners, and what very little I’ve seen of the newer stuff (i.e. 2002 to the present), it doesn’t quite have the same quality to it. Like it’s missing something. Oh, the animation is superb and the voice acting equally so, but it isn’t quite the same anymore. I think it tries too hard, especially since they’re trying to stay relevant to today’s modern audience.
Which of course brings us to this Netflix show. When I saw that picture from Tennapel (I was very surprised to hear of his involvement, actually; I had no idea he was religious), I kinda felt like I’d been punched in the childhood. Dramatic exaggeration, perhaps, but that wasn’t MY Bob and Larry. You know how people complain about shows like Turtles and Transformers, and how the newer stuff is “ruining their childhood”? I never really understood that, because as long as it doesn’t plain suck, it’s cool to see new interpretations of the things you love, and it’s great that more people might know about it! Yeah, well, now I’m one of those people. Now I kinda understand where they’re coming from. Those characters are pretty precious to me, so much so that despite my great, obvious love of voice acting, I’ve never ever watched or listened to an interview of Phil or Mike Nawrocki or any of the others doing their VeggieTales voices. I honesty don’t think my brain could take it. Again, being a little dramatic, but a flood of nostalgic feels swept over me when I saw that pic, and it was tainted by apprehension and just an overall feeling of “WHY?”
As I mentioned, I understand the need for the people now running the Veggie show to remain relevant; that’s the whole reason Dreamworks made their deal with Netflix: it’s where the kids are! (N.B. No one knows where the kids are. The problem is, the kids are everywhere, there’s no one main mass audience anymore.) Web-based shows are an exciting new medium, and I was honestly surprised that Netflix or whomever made the deal considered VeggieTales relevant enough. Of course, I’ve been out of the Veggie loop for so long, I have no idea how popular they may or may not still be in the younger Sunday School crowd. Which brings me to another point (I warned you: can of worms) – how much of the original Idea is still there? I know that when they started having the condensed episodes on TV, they cut out the last lines about how “God made you special, and He loves you very much” and replaced them with a simple “Goodbye”. From what I understand, the newer episodes, post-bankruptcy, are more focused on family values and community themes – not cutting God out entirely, but making sure they contain a more universal message. Rightfully so, of course, as they have to find a big enough audience in order to keep afloat. But who is running this new show? Is the core Christian idea still there – or has it been replaced entirely? It’s not that big of a deal to me, but I know many parents probably care, and it is a little sad that Vischer’s initial dream of trying to share God’s message to children (and adults) in a fun, entertaining way has sort of lost its coherency – not quite selling out, but close to it. I guess it depends on how much Mike and his team are involved. (Phil still writes and voices, but mainly due to contractual obligation – and the fact he created nearly all the characters and knows them best.)
Obviously, this is all speculation: who knows, maybe the new show will be nothing but God, Jesus, Bible, etc. But I do think it’s going to cater as much as it can to a more diverse group of people, hence the addition of new voice actors (Rob Paulsen and Tress MacNeille, to name two confirmed) and the redesigns. I really don’t understand the logic behind the latter – I get making them more loose and cartoony, but why add irises? I might be nitpicking, but that seems to be a bizarre animation choice. And unless the casting director knew Rob and Tress personally and knew of their interest to be involved, they’re obviously turning to the commercial pool of talent to boost their credibility. Well, they have more characters apparently, so they need more actors, which makes sense. Pretty much, it’s an entirely new VeggieTales, a big change, and I’m not sure the world is ready for it – or rather, that I’m ready for it. Obviously, I don’t have to watch it, and can huddle in my room clutching my old VHS tapes, singing “LarryBoy” over and over, but truth be told, I’m actually glad they got the reboot and I’m genuinely curious to see what it’ll be like. I guess I’m afraid it’ll suck, and goodbye VeggieTales forever, y’know?
But then, I haven’t been part of that world in so long, I wonder what exactly I’m afraid of, and I realize that that’s it: I have this conception of what VeggieTales was, and – as Rob likes to say – nostalgia is a powerful emotion. If I had followed Veggie throughout all these years and grown accustomed to the various changes, this would merely be another stepping stone in the great journey of progress. Instead, it’s a leap across a chasm, and I’m hemming and hawing on the side, wondering whether to make the jump or not. Wondering if it’s going to be worth it.
(I wax poetic at times, yes.)
Will this new show ruin my childhood? Probably not, since I can always go back and watch the old stuff and enjoy that they remain eternally the same. Am I really apprehensive about it and givin’ it the ol’ side eye? A bit. At least Phil and Mike are still part of it (contractual obligations or not), and they probably won’t do something stupid, like add fart jokes or other stuff to “appeal to the average kid”. So…hope!
Massive conflicting feels about this whole thing, but the more I look at the redesigns and learn about the people involved – well, no one sets out to make a bad show. It might be good, it might be bad; I might love it, I might hate it. Either way, I’m willing to give it a chance, despite nostalgia bias.
See here for more information on VeggieTales in the House.