Entertaining and enduring: Quality storytelling can make values-based media both meaningful and enjoyable

Published: Thursday, Dec. 8 2011 4:00 p.m. MST

Big Idea's approach is to explore what's behind values like sharing, gratitude and forgiveness.

"I can tell my child, 'I want you to share,' but what's the foundation of that? Why should we share?" Nawrocki said. "For a person of faith, there's a much deeper reason behind that."

But when it comes to Hollywood and film, is there room for such depth?

Flaherty thinks so. While they may not take on a biblical world view, great movie franchises such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Star Wars encompass "the themes of all the great faiths, especially redemption, reconciliation and sacrifice," Flaherty said.

"They might not be films with people holding up John 3:16 or opening with scripture, but these themes are part of the greatest story ever told," he said. "They run through all the greatest that we have."

Successful entertainment doesn't have to be scrubbed free of spirituality. Flaherty pointed to Star Wars as an example. Had the story come from a decades-old book, would the phrase "May the force be with you" have been too new age or spiritual for audiences?

There's no reason to mess with a classic, Flaherty said. Walden Media's three Narnia adaptations combined for more than $1.5 billion gross earnings worldwide.

"You realize, what's the big deal?" said Flaherty, who points out that Lewis himself said that the level of symbolism in his stories could either be accepted, rejected or ignored. "I think that sometimes we get too nervous and have heart attacks over these things, where as long as we are entertaining people, I don't think they are going to parse those words as much as we do.

"Where you get hung up is when you try to rewrite and revise and you think you know better than someone like C.S. Lewis who taught at Oxford. That's when I think you run into a problem, when you change it rather than stay faithful. … There are lines in these books that people love and enjoy and that they expect."

Good storytelling provides the best of both worlds — entertainment and meaning.

VeggieTales is not so much episodic storytelling as it is a traditional three-act structure that takes a hero — and by extension, the viewer — through what Nawrocki referred to as "the protagonist's arc."

"Every well-told story has a theme that it's really trying to emphasize," Nawrocki said. "Before we go into any story, we say, 'What is the hero going to learn here? What are they struggling with and how are they going to go through a story that really helps them deal with what they're struggling with and come out on the other side of it having learned a lesson?'"

Big Idea has sold more than 54 million videos, 13 million books and 7 million CDs. Among those offerings are 40 original productions.

But there's a standard of excellence to honor.

It takes about a year to make a single VeggieTales feature, Nawrocki said. Half of that time is spent "fighting with the story." Before production, the question is asked: "Why would somebody want to see another VeggieTales episode when there's been a lot already?"

"For us the answer is, a good story is a good story, and humor is humor and music is music," Nawrocki said. "If the folks expect it to be good and you deliver on that, then we can continue telling stories. That's always our challenge.

"We really try hard with every story to make it the best story it can be and to really enjoy it ourselves and to be proud of it before it goes out there. … For us, it's crucial to continue doing that to stay relevant, to keep making shows that people want to watch."

email: ashill@desnews.com, ttoone@desnews.com, Twitter: aaronshill, tbtoone

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