NASHVILLE -- The idea for the movie began with a vision of three fake pirates falling from the sky into the ocean, transported in a magical rowboat back into the 17th century.
It helps to know that Elliot, Sedgewick and George have, in their previous dramatic lives, been known as Larry the Cucumber, Mr. Lunt and Pa Grape -- key characters in the successful VeggieTales products created by Big Idea, Inc. Now they're headed back to theaters in "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything," a feature film distributed by Universal Pictures that is scheduled for release on Jan. 11.
This time around, the vegetables don't quote scripture and their adventure doesn't turn into a funny version of a Bible story. Still, the artist also known as Bob the Tomato stressed that Veggie fans don't have to worry that these pirates have abandoned the faith.
"You can do a story like this one of two ways," said Phil Vischer, who created Big Idea, Inc., and continues to work as a writer and performer for the company.
"You can say, 'Let's start with a Bible story and then we'll figure out where our characters fit into it.' When you do this, you know that you already have a story and some characters and there is a biblical message in there. The challenge is figuring out how to make it VeggieTales story. You have to find the humor."
This is what happened with "Jonah," the first feature-length VeggieTales production, which cost $16 million to make and took in about $25 million at the box office back in 2002. That was a lot of money for an openly Christian movie in the days before "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
However, "Jonah" was a high-stakes gamble for Vischer and his Big Idea team, part of a complicated legal and financial train wreck that led to the sale of the company to Classic Media. The VeggieTales franchise -- which has sold more than 50 million DVDs and other video products -- is now part of the Entertainment Rights, a British company.
The VeggieTales stars have also been a hit on Saturday mornings for NBC, but with some of their more explicit God references trimmed for general consumption. The big question for the Big Idea people is whether softening the religious language in their stories is a plus or a minus, when it comes to reaching a wider audience.
This is not a new question. Vischer noted that the VeggieTales team has been using a second, less explicitly religious, way of telling stories since the very beginning.
If the first approach to telling stories starts with the Bible and then blends in humor, the second begins with a funny story and then tries to blend in some faith. That's what happened in 2003 when Vischer had his rowboat vision and wrote the script for "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything."
"You can do it either way. This time, we just started out with the slacker pirates and we went from there," he said. "When you go this route, someone always has to ask, 'So what's the lesson here?' I usually have to say, 'I don't know right now, but we'll dig around until we find one.' "
So the new movie's message is biblical, even if it doesn't openly quote the Bible.
Christian parents who take their children to see the film will recognize that it's a parable about God helping the heroes conquer their fears and weaknesses, said Terry Pefanis, the chief operating officer at Big Idea. Many other viewers will think that it's a silly, positive, wholesome story for children -- period.
Studio executives know that, to be a mainstream hit, this kind of faith-friendly product has to appeal to both of these audiences. It has to please the people from the pews, while reaching out to as many other viewers as possible.
"There is a Christian market out there," said Pefanis, after a test screening of an unfinished version of the movie last week in Nashville. "Hollywood is starting to realize that, now.
"There are people who want to see good entertainment that has some Christian content. But it has to be good. You can't just put something in a Christian box and expect people to love it. There has to be a real story in there."