As I recall, I didn’t care for this episode much as a child. At the time, I mainly attributed that to the absence of Silly Songs of Larry. A valid criticism, younger me. A valid criticism.
Typically my Veggie Tales reviews have a summary of the plot, some stuff about how funny and well done I thought it was, and then I wrap up with my feelings about the message. Was it a good lesson, was it bad, and how well did they express it? In this case, I’m going to turn that around. The moral of Esther is “do the right thing even if you are scared,” and the context is the protagonist protecting her people from an evil vizier. Clearly all that works and I don’t think I need to argue why, but I really can’t say the story was well done or even charmingly funny. So for once, this atheist has nothing to say about religion, but a whole lot to say about good writing.
Esther is one of the two books in the Bible named for women. It takes place in Persia, where Jews are a conquered minority struggling to keep to their faith despite all the hardships and prejudice in a strange land. The episode, like the Bible story, starts with the current queen of Persia being banished for refusing to get up in the middle of the night and make the king a sandwich. I mean, she wasn’t making a sandwich in the Bible. She was called to appear before the king and his drunk partying friends and, well, I’m pretty sure she was expected to do some old-timey equivalent of a striptease.
This puts the episode in an awkward position. Esther will end up married to the king (King Ahasuerus, who the veggies simply call “king” for obvious reasons) and if he’s the kind of person who throws a woman out into the night over a “sandwich,” he’s an awful guy. This isn’t a fairy tale marriage that the kids can feel happy about. The episode deals with this by making the king come across as simple minded and easily swayed, so most of the blame lies with his advisor, Haman. Unfortunately, this solution creates two more problems. One is that they pick the Mr. Nezzer/Mr. Lunt duo to portray the king and Haman. Mr. Nezzer is deep voiced and serious, and we are used to seeing him as sinister. Mr. Lunt, on the other hand, has a high voice, a long pencil-thin moustache and is typically the hapless toady. For those who haven’t seen any of these episodes, imagine somebody is doing a live action version of Aladdin, with Aziz Ansari as Jafar and Ben Kingsley as the Sultan. That’s about as off as this felt. I think if Archibald or even Larry had been the king, and an Evil Scallion had been Haman, it would have worked much better.
As for the other problem, maybe I should just get along with the review. I think it will become clear.
So, now that the king is wifeless, Haman sets off to find a new bride. He runs across Esther, who is hanging out with her Uncle Mordecai. Her friend recently stole an apple, and Esther is too afraid to confront her, which sets up her character as kind of a wuss. Now, I’m not saying that confrontation wouldn’t be hard, but I think most of us can confront people when we feel strongly about the issue at stake. Because Esther doesn’t find that courage, she comes across as either someone who is fairly cowardly, or who doesn’t really care about the confrontation to begin with. Mordecai is actually pressuring her a lot in this scene, and will do so for every decision she makes in this whole episode, so I think you could make a case for either one.
Haman nabs Esther for a game of Persia’s Next Top Queen, and Mordecai advises her to keep their family connection a secret, because Haman hates him and their entire family. Haman’s motivation for hating them isn’t really explained. In the Biblical version, Haman just hates Jews (anti-Semitism; providing narrative impetus since 550 BCE!). In this episode, however, Esther and Mordecai carefully and awkwardly refer to their “family” not their religion or ethnic group, and nobody says the word “Jew.” I’m not sure why not; the protagonists of Josh and the Big Wall were clearly Jewish.
Esther sings a pretty song about God and wins the queenship, if winning is the right word. She explicitly states that she doesn’t want to be queen and she’s scared. When Mordecai meets her later on a balcony, he rolls his eyes at her anxiety with the statement, “you’ve always had a mind of your own.” That line really bothered me. For one thing, I’ve noticed that toxic, domineering people often respond to normal emotions and healthy boundaries with “you’re just being stubborn.” It makes people feel guilty for having things like the basic capacity to think for themselves, or a vague sense of selfhood. In this case, even if you ignore the sexual consent issues, the king’s last wife got kicked out for refusing to make a sandwich in the middle of the night. That’s a pretty valid reason to be scared.
This is also bad storytelling because if there’s one thing Esther does not come across as, it’s headstrong. That’s another recurring problem in this episode. Mordecai and the narrator constantly inform the audience that Esther is brave, but I don’t think there’s a single scene where she does something based on personal conviction and motivation, rather than being pushed around by outside forces. This characterization comes all the way down to the nonverbal elements of her characterization; she is limp and her voice is mild and quavery.
The next scene is an assassination attempt by the French Peas. It is simultaneously the best and most disappointing part. It is the best because it is the most funny. There’s a cake and a giant piano and peas with French accents. It’s disappointing because it exists to set up three plot points that will all be paid off very awkwardly. First, it is illegal to approach the king without being invited. Second, Mordecai saves the King’s life. Third, in this version of Persia, criminals get sent to the Island of Perpetual Tickling.
When Haman tricks the king into signing an order for Mordecai’s family to all be
killed Perpetually Tickled, Esther has to approach the King in order to convince him to save her people. She’s terrified, because that’s forbidden. We are supposed to be scared for her because of the dire fate of the French Peas, but the king didn’t react much when they showed up unannounced and was easily tricked to stand under the giant piano of near-death. The king didn’t seem bothered by anything that was going on until it was clear they were trying to kill him. He’s also clearly smitten, and doesn’t seem disturbed by what nearly happened to him. Even as a kid, I couldn’t identify with Esther’s terror. It was too obvious that nothing bad was going to happen to her.
The second plot point gets paid off by the king rewarding Mordecai for saving his life. This makes Haman mad. This would, in most stories, be the point at which Haman decides to get revenge because he is jealous of Mordecai’s new status, but in this episode Haman has already put his
murderous tickley plan into action. His increased anger changes nothing in the plot, so the whole thing is fairly pointless.
In the end, Esther finally tells the King what’s up and he freaks out because he likes both her and Mordecai. Obviously that was going to be his reaction, and that’s the second problem with his characterization. In the original biblical story, the king was fickle and brutal, which made the story rather family unfriendly, but maintained the suspense. In this story, the question isn’t whether the king will turn on Esther, but whether Esther will whine and hesitate until it’s too late and everyone is dead.
On top of all those plot and characterization problems, this episode just didn’t have that Veggie Tales charm. They went for something of a gangster movie pastiche, which didn’t work for two reasons. One is that you can’t parody something when most of the target audience isn’t familiar with it. Do you know any six year olds who are fans of Martin Scorsese? The other is that the design elements this concept brought in were all very dreary and adult; a narrator with a slow, drawling voice, for example, or veggies wearing fedoras, which isn’t any sillier than veggies wearing robes and crowns. The thing about most Veggie Tales is that no matter what I’ve thought of the episode, I’ve felt like the writers were having fun. This didn’t feel fun.