We’ve all been there. You have to get something done, but you’d really rather not be the person in charge of that thing. Maybe you complain a little. Maybe you even try to take a boat trip to somewhere far away. Only, in the middle of the boat trip, there’s a big storm, and everyone’s going to die, and you know that it’s probably your fault, so you tell everyone else, “Throw me overboard.” After they do, a huge fish swallows you up until you’re like, “OK, fine, I’ll do that thing.” And then the fish barfs you up right back where you started. Isn’t it always the way?
It is if you’re the Old Testament prophet Jonah, or if you’re singer David Osmond, who plays the role of Jonah in “Jonah and the Great Fish.” The new film was released last month on DVD by Provo-based Lightstone Pictures, makers of the popular “Liken the Scriptures” films. The company uses a lighthearted musical approach to retell stories from the Bible and the Book of Mormon that teach positive moral values to children.
The series was a fairly hot property locally in the early-to-mid ’00s, but up until November, it had been five years since the release of the previous film. “We had put out eight movies over the course of four years, culminating with ‘Samuel the Lamanite,’ ” said filmmaker Dennis Agle, who has creatively propelled the series since its inception. “We were ready to start production on our ninth title.”
The problem, Agle said, was that a lot of the backing for that pending ninth film was from people who had made their money investing in real estate. Is there anyone who can’t guess what happened from there?
After much of the financing for “Jonah and the Great Fish” dried up, the production went into a holding pattern. And actually, Agle said, that ended up being a blessing in disguise. “It made us really think about the way we approach these films,” he said. With the aim of improving the product, Lightstone arranged staged readings of its “Jonah” script for “Liken”-friendly audiences.
“They were not shy about sharing with us things that weren’t working for them, or things that were confusing,” Agle said. “We went through two rounds of staged readings with extensive revisions both times.”
The right guy for the role
Another benefit of the delay in filming was the eventual involvement of second-generation singing star Osmond, son of Alan Osmond (the eldest of the original Osmond Brothers), as reluctant prophet and whale hors d’oeuvre Jonah. Commanded by God to cry repentance to the people of Nineveh, Jonah resists his prophetic assignment until a period of reflection literally in the belly of the beast prompts a change of heart.
Agle said that Osmond wasn’t available to the production in 2006 on account of his recovery from a prolonged fight against multiple sclerosis (the same disease that caused Alan Osmond to retire from actively performing). In 2009, just as Lightstone began reviving the long-dormant production process for “Jonah and the Great Fish,” Osmond became a contestant on “American Idol.” “The third time we came around to it” in early 2010, Agle said, “he was available and had just finished a run as Joseph in ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.’ ”
Osmond, who understudied the role of Joseph for his uncle, Donny Osmond, before taking it on himself, said that the “Liken” films have a fun, light tone that’s similar to “Dreamcoat,” with the added benefit of being appropriate for young kids. Being Jonah, he said, is something that he can share with his own children.
“It’s a great way to teach children about the principles, let alone the stories, of the Bible,” Osmond said. “I’ve got two little girls now, and being a dad, it was that much more special to me to be able to play this role.”
Much of “Jonah and the Great Fish” was filmed at the SCERA Center for the Arts in Orem, where the production did shooting in the mornings, and presented “Jonah” as a stage musical in the evenings. “Starting at 7:30 or 8 in the morning, we would be on the same stage. We would have it set a little different for cameras,” Osmond said. Then after working on the film all day “we would stop by 5, reset the stage, and have a live audience come in for a 7:30 show.
“It made things a little interesting.”
Music and dancing
From the beginning, the “Liken” films have been noted for their energetic, catchy music, which is a major element of “Jonah and the Great Fish.” What’s different about “Jonah” is that it has dramatically beefed up dance numbers. Agle said that he used to feel like dancing slowed the films down. There’s an abundance of dance talent in Utah Valley, however, and Agle said that he gradually came around to including more dancing in “Jonah.”
“I was not a fan until I started watching some of the dance shows on TV,” he said, “and saw how effective dance can be at carrying the story.”
Singer and actress Katherine Nelson, who plays the queen of Nineveh in the film, said that her kids are especially excited about the dancing. “They were so happy to see some really good break dancing in this one,” Nelson said. “Now we have all sorts of break dancing moves going on around the house.”
Which is not to say that the music has a lesser impact in “Jonah.” “The ‘Liken’ films are really driven by the music,” Nelson said. “The music is what every kid’s anticipating.” And longtime “Liken” composer Aaron Edson, she said, has a magical way of combining music and message.
“It’s not only heard, but it’s deeply understood,” Nelson said. And catchy, apparently. “My little 3-year-old is running around singing, ‘Whose Side Are You On?,’ and she’s only seen it once.”
Edson said that he’s always had a lot of freedom in creating the music for the films, despite frequent suggestions from Agle noted in the scripts. “In times past, I’ve looked at his suggestions, and sometimes I’ll think, ‘No way, I’m going to do my own thing,’ ” Edson said.
This time around, however, Edson followed a prompting from the story of the film itself. “The story of Jonah is really about doing the things that God has planned for you, instead of going your own way,” he said. In that spirit, Edson said, he decided to strictly follow any suggestions from Agle. One result of doing so, he said, was the imagery in the song “Night of Nineveh,” in which the king of Nineveh worries about the future of his city.
“I’ve received many compliments over that song,” Edson said.
Bible students may notice a certain strategic omission from “Jonah and the Great Fish.” Agle said that the final chapter of the book of Jonah was a little too downbeat for the film. As Osmond explained, “Jonah gets disgruntled when the people of Nineveh repent, he gets a little upset at God. It’s not really a good happy ending to a story for children.”