October 04, 2002 9:55am EST
Jonah is a computer-animated tale based on the Biblical story of the Hebrew prophet who spends three days in the belly of a great fish and eventually learns the meaning of compassion. In the VeggieTales version however the characters are played by garden-variety vegetables including peas carrots cucumbers and tomatoes. The movie begins in the modern-day as a group of vegetables led by Bob the Tomato crash their van on their way to a concert. As they wait in a seafood restaurant for a tow truck (guess they'd better look out for the chef) bickering over who caused the accident they run into three pirates who tell them a classic tale that teaches a lesson about compassion: Jonah--played by Archibald Asparagus--must go to the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh (which is inhabited by bad guys who slap each other with fish for no apparent reason) to deliver a message from God demanding they repent their evil ways. Although the story within the story starts off grandiosely with angry seas and a long desert trek to Nineveh it gets wrapped up rather quickly with the modern characters immediately understanding the message about the need for compassion and second chances.
Phil Vischer voices several characters in the film including Jonah Archibald Asparagus Bob the Tomato and the three pirates. Perhaps that's why male characters dominate the film. I can't help but be offended by the fact that the only female character is Laura Carrot seen in the modern-day setting. She is a bratty and terribly greedy vegetable whose selfish actions cause the family minivan to careen off the road. Another slightly offensive character in the film is the only non-vegetable Khalil. An Arab stereotype of some sort he is a dark-complexioned half-worm half-caterpillar with a thick accent a sharp contrast to the stuck up bespectacled Jonah who sports an uptight British accent. The only thing on Khalil's mind throughout the film is to sell things ("You deliver the message from the Lord and I sell the plush toys"). His character however does play an instrumental role at the end of the film in explaining the concept of second chances to Jonah.
Jonah was produced by Big Idea Productions whose founder Phil Vischer wrote directed voiced and even had a hand in the film's original score. The VeggieTales series actually began as 30-minute videos and included the titles such as Dave and the Giant Pickle (for David and Goliath) and Where's God When I'm S-Scared? While the animation is expressive and rich in detail there is something bizarre about watching limbless vegetables hobbling around. When the characters need to do things that require hands like playing cards for example the cards just magically float in place in front of their faces. If you are going to go so far as to make vegetables talk why not give them arms and legs too? The movie comes in at 84 minutes which is probably just enough: it's a constant hard-sell on biblical values complete with musical numbers including an angelic vegetable gospel choir inside the belly of the whale.
John Q is just your ordinary average blue-collar worker in Middle America trying to make ends meet. Unfortunately things are slow at the plant and John's hours have been cut in half. To make matters worse his wife's car has just been repossessed and he can't find a second job to bring in more income. Then the hammer really falls: his son collapses during a Little League game and the doctors say the boy needs a new heart--and fast--or he will die. When John finds out that his insurance won't cover the operation (his policy has been downgraded by his company because his hours were cut) and that the hospital won't put his son on the organ transplant list without a stiff up-front cash payment John takes matters into his own hands. Holding the ER hostage John demands that the hospital put his son on the organ transplant list.
Denzel Washington is Everyman letting his hair get unruly packing on some un-Hollywood-star inches around the middle and wearing nothing but cheap hats and jeans. Despite some silly screenwriting Washington manages to raise John above soap-opera dramatics and weak polemics ("The enemy is us--we shot down national healthcare") with genuine emotion and convincing resolve but barely. James Woods is perfect as the sniveling smarmy and supercilious doctor but unfortunately he and the rest of the talented cast are wasted as one-dimensional characters and saddled with routine clichéd dialogue. Anne Heche (who should be commended for taking on such a villainous role) is the icy hospital administrator; Robert Duvall is the by-the-book hostage negotiator; Ray Liotta is the trigger-tempered police chief; and Shawn Hatosy is the big-city brat who just won't stand for being a hostage. The rest of the hostages aren't even remotely interesting nor are any of the other characters.
While weak dialogue is partially to blame when a cast as strong as this one can't breathe real life into their characters some of the culpability must be laid at the feet of the director. Nick Cassavetes' (She's So Lovely) movie suffers from heavy-handed treatment: every five minutes the audience is beaten over the head (again) as someone rails against the country's failing health system and places guilt on this party or that complete with obligatory tight close-up shot (and halo) directly on that character. Not to mention Cassavetes tips his hand with the opening scene. The patter by screenwriter James Kearns (TV's Highway to Heaven) is cute at times but on the whole the script is didactic yet inane and would make for a poor episode of E.R.. The story however does manage to engage the audience on an emotional level with its timely message. One cannot help but root for John Q no matter his vigilante ways. After John's denouement Cassavetes closes the film with news clips of celebrities stumping for the cause. This is typical of the movie as a whole; while it attempts to deal with the serious issue of health care reform it only does so on the most superficial level.