For millions of people all over the world, the Jordan River Valley in Israel is held in reverence as the place where Jesus Christ was baptized.
It's also known as the "bird superhighway." Just ask Rob Loos, a longtime producer who learned about the Jordan as a bird hotspot while on a writer's retreat in Jerusalem a few years ago.
"I noticed there was such a wide variety of fowl flying around. Our guide told us that about 5 million birds migrate to the Jordan River Valley every year," Loos said. "It got very distracting."
The birds were so distracting that Loos eventually got the idea to create a children's series around the experience. The idea became "Iesodo," an animated series about birds that live and travel through the valley as an allegory for Christ's teachings.
"It's such a great metaphor for Christianity because there were so many different kinds of birds. I thought this would be such a great idea to explore, especially in animation," Loos said. "I started thinking, if we had to turn Jesus into a bird, what would he be? A dove."
That dove became Iesodo (whose name is Japanese for "the way of Jesus"), the main character of the story. Loos, who made his name working on projects like "Star Search" and later on animated kids' shows like "McGee and Me" in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said he's been on a different mission with "Iesodo": Teach children about the Bible in a new way.
"The Old Testament has been handled a lot in material for kids. There's very little about the New Testament," Loos said. "You might have an enjoyable time going to see 'Rio 2,' but we provide a more real message and something you can take with you."
Opportunities for parents and kids
While "Iesodo" has good production value, music and quality animation, it also gives parents an opportunity they don't always get with other animation features: The chance to discuss faith with their kids.
"I think a lot of parents are looking for those opportunities to have with their kids," says "Fireproof" actress Erin Bethea, who voices "Maggie." “ ‘Iesodo' provides that."
And parents may want more opportunities to introduce faith and values when their children are young, as young people are much less involved in faith than their parents. Pew reported in 2010 that one in four millennials are unaffiliated with any one faith group or church, and they're twice as uninvolved in organized religion than baby boomers were in the 18-29 age range.
Yet "Iesodo" appeals to people with a wide variety of backgrounds, media literacy professor and Movieguide publisher Ted Baehr said, because of its use of allegory. Baehr gave "Iesodo" a high rating, he says, for its more subtle approach to teaching the gospels.
Baehr, who was involved with CBS' adaptation of "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" in the late 1970s, says allegory is one of the greatest tools Christian and faith-based entertainment can employ. The allegory frees viewers to be more open to a show's message.
"When we did that show, I got hundreds of letters and one man wrote me about how the show helped him to get excited about faith because he didn't feel weighed down (by doctrine)," Baehr said. "Allegory works. If you really want to reach children, 'Iesodo' is a beautiful way to do it."
A new 'Joy'
Baehr and Bethea say "Iesodo" also works for families who don't come from a faith-based background but still want to teach their children right from wrong. As Pixar films are often put under the microscope for allegedly exploring topics like homosexuality that many parents might not be ready to broach with kids, Bethea says "Iesodo" is a safe bet for any age.
"Whether you’re a Christian family or not, you want your kids to understand concepts like kindness, forgiveness, love," Bethea said. "It allows conversation to grow between parents and children."
Yet Christians will readily recognize New Testament stories behind the feathers and music. For example, in "Miracles are Everywhere," an episode on "Iesodo: Faith," birds from all over the world come to visit and speak with Iesodo, but there isn't enough food to go around. Similar to the feeding of the 5,000 in the New Testament, Iesodo provides for everyone.
The newest addition to the "Iesodo" series, "Joy," will be released in October and tells the Nativity story, Loos said. There are currently three other DVDs available in the "Iesodo" series.
"Your children have so much competing for their attention, so this is a great way to introduce the New Testament in a way that captures their imagination," Bethea said. "'Iesodo' really delivers quality entertainment that families can enjoy but also helps support values you want to teach your children. That's a really rare combination."