Mike Nawrocki believes in the power of story, family and the Bible.
Humor, song and talking vegetables complete the formula.
Nawrocki is the co-creator of VeggieTales and co-founder of Big Idea Entertainment, which continues to produce programming for families that is buoyant and, at times, silly, but which always comes from a Christian perspective.
"We want to tell stories from a biblical worldview; from a worldview that assumes that there's a god who made us, who loves us and wants a relationship with us," said Nawrocki, who founded Big Idea in 1993 along with Phil Vischer. "We're going to tell stories out of that space."
Recent releases from Big Idea focus on one of the most extraordinary moments from the Bible — the birth of Christ — and also on the family, which Nawrocki calls a "great model" for learning about God.
"The Little Drummer Boy" is VeggieTales' latest feature-length offering. It's based on the 1968 stop-motion animated feature, which Nawrocki calls a "holiday staple."
"We've done our own VeggieTales spin on it," he said.
That means talking vegetables who sing and joke, but ultimately deliver a substantive biblical message. Junior Asparagus plays the role of Aaron, a young boy embittered by tragedy and mistrust whose heart changes when he happens upon the scene of Christ's birth. Mixed in with the expanded storyline is an original song, "Can't Smile Without Ewe," and, of course, a just-for-fun number called "The 8 Polish Foods of Christmas." There's ample comic relief from characters like Mr. Lunt, who is preoccupied with chocolate milk, and Larry the Cucumber, who is one of the three Magi but fancies himself as a Jedi.
More importantly, the project gave Nawrocki and his team the chance to approach a sacred subject in a reverent manner.
"It was a great opportunity for us to go to the manger," Nawrocki said. "From the beginning of VeggieTales, we wanted to stay away from showing Jesus as a vegetable. We just felt like that would be crossing a line that we didn't want to cross.
"'The Little Drummer Boy' just gave us the opportunity to tell the Nativity story through the eyes of Aaron and experience the manger in a way that really worked for VeggieTales."
In recent months, Big Idea also introduced a DVD series designed to create teaching moments for families. The "Family Builders Series" DVDs are based on feedback from mothers on the "top felt needs" for their preschool-age children.
The creators at Big Idea find inspiration in their own families — Nawrocki says VeggieTales' first episode, "Where's God When I'm S-Scared," came from Vischer's experience with a daughter who was afraid of the dark — but they've always sought input from viewers, even before the days of social media.
The 2001 feature "Lyle the Kindly Viking" was the product of a question posed to fans, who responded that they would like to see a VeggieTales feature about sharing.
"That's what we've wanted to try to be, is a resource for parents to help pass on biblical values to their kids," said Nawrocki, who has two children. "Just drawing those things from our personal experience as parents is one way to go, but we really wanted to also reach out to VeggieTales fans and say, 'Hey, is there something we're missing here? What is helpful for you?'"
The first two "Family Builders Series" DVDs, "Larry Learns to Listen" and "Bob Lends a Helping Hand," were released in September.
"We're taking values that maybe are not quite as big as we would tackle in a full VeggieTales episode," Nawrocki said.
The concept first saw life in a series of VeggieTales children's books. The simple format translates well into a singalong, which is then paired with classic, larger-concept VeggieTales episodes with a similar theme, such as "Lyle the Kindly Viking."
The blending of basic principles for children — listening to parents, sharing, gratitude, forgiveness — with a biblical perspective is foundational to what Big Idea is trying to achieve, Nawrocki says.
Nawrocki believes families are a "great model" for understanding our own standing with deity.
"A family can reflect our own relationship with God, both as being a child and as being a parent, and being able to see the character of God through that institution of family," he said. "As a parent, to say, I can see how much love I have for my child and I can't believe how much I love this child, and then to realize, wow, that's how much God loves us, and more so."
Aaron Shill is the editor of Features and Mormon Times at the Deseret News.