An Interview with Brian Roberts
If you’re a parent or grandparent and you’ve not heard of VeggieTales, then you must be hiding under a rock. VeggieTales is a series of children’s computer animated films featuring vegetables in stories conveying moral themes based on Christianity. The characters themselves, like Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato, have become household words in many homes across this country. From lessons in forgiveness and loving your neighbor to handling peer pressure and dealing with life’s disappointments, VeggieTales can supplement your parenting plan of raising children to see life from God’s perspective. Created by Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki, the first VeggieTale made its debut on December 21, 1993. And they’ve been rolling out tales ever since.
The Penniless Princess is VeggieTales’ newest release and it’s already popping up in stores across the country. Capitalizing on two previous tales with a princess theme, this one is a retelling of the children’s novel, A Little Princess, by Francis Hodgson Burnett. This riches to rags story teaches children what to do when life turns from sugary sweet to nothing but lemons. It’s a way for children to learn what the famous country song teaches, “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.” Yes, we all have trials to endure.
Sara, who’s been raised with the best of everything, is sent to a prestigious boarding school when her father goes off to war. Her world is completely turned upside-down when, on her birthday, she learns of the tragic death of her papa (and the loss of his fortune). Newly orphaned, Sara can no longer afford the school and is only allowed to continue as a servant.
With tables turned, Sara must now live in the shadow of the head mistress, Miss Minchin, who makes Cinderella’s stepmother look mild. Yet, despite her circumstances, Sara learns to love and give. As adults we know true character is developed during trials. Sara must cope with the loss of her beloved papa which reduces her to poverty. Sara learns that her true character and worth is found when she trusts God. In the midst of the storms of her life, Sara remembers her father’s words, “You’re never alone,” and “You are God’s little princess.” In God’s kingdom, there are no orphans. This story is relevant today as many parents are trying to explain to their children why they can’t have what they use to in this downturn economy. Our possessions and wealth must never define us.
This story is based on the Biblical truths found in Philippians 4:8 - “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Sara comes to this profound conclusion, “Even if we look like servants on the outside, we can be princesses on the inside.”
It also encourages children to trust God no matter the circumstances, as found in Romans 8:39. For nothing can separate us from the love of Christ—not even death, loss of wealth, etc. The story correlates to the Biblical story of Joseph, who also lost everything. But as we know, God had a plan for Joseph just as He does for Sara and for those who love Him. As for the ending to the story, you’ll have to watch the tale to find out.
So allow your children to dress up as princesses and princes, have a tea party and treat them to entertainment that will teach character and help them mature into what He wants them to be. A story like this lends itself to meaningful discussions about matters of the heart around the dinner table. And don’t be surprised if this simple story causes you to shed a tear, as it did me. Parents and grandparents are not immune to the powerful teaching in these tales.
As a counselor in the public school system, my students are very familiar with VeggieTales. Some VeggieTales are produced in a school edition, and I use them to teach character to the children under my care. Their eyes light up when they see me enter the room with an episode from VeggieTales. After viewing this one at Gideon, I feel this may be the best VeggieTale so far! You’ll love the Best Friends Forever texting song, and it’s a treat to hear the vegetables speaking with an English accent.
I caught up with Brian Roberts at the screening of The Penniless Princess at the Gideon Film Conference at Ridgecrest, NC. I asked him a few questions about his role at Big Idea (the company that produces VeggieTales) and this new release. Brian is currently the director of VeggieTales. He has been the voice of Gourdon the Bully for VeggieTales since 2005. Brian is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a major in Communication Arts.
SCH – Brian, how did you get into animation and ultimately working at VeggieTales?
Brian – In high school I had a background in performing arts in theater, drama and music performance. Then I went through a shy phase and got into visual arts such as drawing and painting. At the same time, Disney was back on top with the releases of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. This motivated me to want to work for Disney and become an animator because it combined the visual and the performing arts into one.
Then when I was in college, I saw the second episode of VeggieTales, God Wants me to Forgive Them, in a Christian Bookstore. When I saw Larry the Cucumber come out with his Tuba, I said, “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve got to work for this company.” I later contacted Big Idea about a possible internship. I was told to call back after I graduated. After graduation I called them every month for six months, but they weren’t hiring.
While waiting for an opening, I took several different jobs such as teaching animation, working on web design, and print design. I said, “I can’t live like this, getting my hopes up and having them dashed.” So I decided to go back to school in animation and was accepted into Sheridan College in Toronto, where the most prestigious program in animation is offered. I was all packed and ready to move when Big Idea finally posted a job. Within two weeks, Jan 3, 2000, I was in Chicago working for Big Idea.
SCH – You were persistent and it paid off. So what is your current role at Big Idea Productions?
Brian – I direct many of VeggieTales’ 45-minute episodes. Mike Nawrocki is our writer and other director, and Phil Vischer is one of our voice artists. Mike and Phil created VeggieTales.
SCH - What are you doing to reach a lost world?
Brian - For each VeggieTales episode, we find a Biblical truth that can help families. Then we look for a way to tell a story that communicates that Biblical truth in a meaningful way. By creating great entertainment for families to watch together that’s engaging and funny, we can get into people’s hearts and change them.
SCH - Why did you cry the first time you read the script for The Penniless Princess?
Brian - I thought the story itself was beautiful. I’d seen the Shirley Temple film but had never read The Little Princess book. It’s such a beautiful illustration of God’s love for us, even during hardships.
SCH – How many VeggieTales have been released as of today?
Brian - This is number 49. We release three each year.
SCH - Tell me about your next VeggieTales production.
Brian - It’s coming out in October and it’s called The League of Incredible Vegetables. It stars Larry Boy but with a new assortment of characters who are superheroes with supersuits. Junior learns that true heroes don’t rely on their supersuits, they rely on God.
SCH – I know that VeggieTales are best selling stories. So how well do they sell and what other languages are they translated into?
Brian – Over the lifetime of the brand (nearly 19 years), we have sold millions of videos. We are the number one faith-based DVD brand for kids. We have a strong presence in Christian retail stores, as well as outlets like Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and others. We have, in the past, had videos translated in different languages such as Spanish, Chinese, and German. They are also captioned for deaf children.
SCH – Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Brian - Hopefully, wherever God wants me. I’ve been with Big Idea for thirteen years.
SCH – In the closing credits of The Penniless Princess, I noticed the name Maggie Roberts in the voice parts. Is she related to you?
Brian - She’s my daughter and she’s been doing the voice of Annie for several shows now. Annie was originally performed by Phil’s oldest daughter. When she got older, Mike’s daughter took over. When Mike’s daughter aged out of it, my daughter took the role.
SCH - Is it true that Big Idea has been bought out by DreamWorks? If so, will the mission of VeggieTales change?
Brian - It is true that DreamWorks will be our new owner, but Veggie Tales will be driven by the same management team. We will continue to be committed to the Biblical values.
Watch the Featured Music Video, “Orphan,” by Music Artist Ronnie Freeman
Ronnie Freeman has teamed up with VeggieTales offering a beautiful song entitled, “Orphan.” It celebrates our “adopted” status as part of God’s family. The music video of the song, off Freeman’s new album, If This Is What It Means, features footage from VeggieTales: The Penniless Princess.
Click here to watch The Penniless Princess Movie Trailer
Click here to learn more about author Ginny Dent Brant
Want more of Ginny? Check out Are You In The World Or Of The World?