Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Review: Me, Myself and Bob

Back in the day I used to do some writing for the website Suite101. That place is long gone now but my writing remains.

I mostly did book and film reviews and I'm still proud of a couple of them. Let's take a look:

Me, Myself, and Bob - The Rise and Fall of Big Idea

Starting a successful business is a dream for many Americans and countless numbers have worked tirelessly day and night to one day become CEOs of respected companies. For Phil Vischer, that dream came true with the his popular computer animated video series, VeggieTales, and the creation of his company, Big Idea. But nobody told Vischer how hard it would be to maintain that success, and in his fascinating, candid book, "Me, Myself, & Bob: A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables," he details the incredible rise of Big Idea and its spectacular fall. For Vischer it was hard watching his dream die, but he believes this book will help his fellow dreamers understand the perils of success.

"Me, Myself, & Bob" begins by charting the early of life of Phil Vischer, including his home life in Muscatine, Iowa, his strong Christian upbringing and his early fascination with movies. That interest in film, particularly special effects, led him take a career in computers and computer animation. From his deep belief in the importance of religious morality and love of filmmaking came VeggieTales, an animated video series teaching children religious lessons in an entertaining and meaningful way.

The early sections of the book are some of Vischer’s best as he does a terrific job documenting the trials and tribulations of an independent animator struggling not only to find work, but to support his wife and child as well. Of particular interest is the story of the first VeggieTales episode, which Vischer and his tiny crew slaved away over despite the primitiveness of early 1990s computer animation. At the time Pixar Animation Studios was only producing short films, making Big Idea an unheralded trailblazer in long-form animated production.

From here Vischer discusses the growth of VeggieTales as a franchise and the blossoming of Big Idea into a huge company dominated by infighting and instability. "Me, Myself, & Bob" is at its most compelling in these sections as Vischer exposes nearly every problem that plagued Big Idea, from executives who refused to discuss business plans with Vischer, to animators arguing over religious beliefs, and to a swelling of bureaucracy despite no noticeable increase in profits. Vischer’s candidness is astonishing as he is more than willing to lay the blame on himself for many of the company’s problems. The end of the book is particularly tragic as Vischer lays off his former friends and employees, and watches the company he built die a slow death through lawsuits and bankruptcy sales. How can one dream go so wrong?

Without a doubt the behind-the-scenes stories Vischer tells are the highlight of the book and any aspiring artist or business person will find Vischer’s stories informative and valuable. A later chapter even includes what Vischer considers the most important lessons he learned from the experience, which should be pasted in the office of any small-business owner. Vischer’s spirit is also quite a thing to witness as he suffers many hardships but always manages to pick himself up. For anyone who has struggled in his or her career Vischer is a model of stick-to-itiveness.

This review should mention that Vischer himself is a committed Christain, and the book itself is targeted towards a Christian audience, but "Me, Myself, and Bob" transcends its origins as a study in faith and becomes in essence a story about ambition and ego. Vischer expands the company as much as he did because he wanted to become the Christian Disney. The concept of a global company creating trusted religious entertainment was the driving force for many of Vischer’s decisions, but he lacked the knowhow to actually do it. So Vischer hired a number of executives who seemed unclear of his mission and did not have experience in the entertainment industry. Those actions laid the seeds for Big Idea’s eventual destruction.

Vischer believed he had a calling from God to create a media empire, but the religious aspect was incidental. What Vischer wanted to be was the next Walt Disney, but Disney himself never set out to become an industry giant. Disney was driven by a passion for new ideas and innovation in entertainment, while Vischer, in the later years of Big Idea, seemed more interested in the corporate aspect. Big Idea could have become as a big a force as the Walt Disney Company, but as the book demonstrates, it needed a leader who wanted to follow his own path, not follow in another’s footsteps. When Big Idea decided to expand beyond its ability to manage the company began to die. Vischer may have had a dream, and a noble one at that, but his ambitions exceeded his ability and knowledge. A tragic tale most certainly, but a valuable one as well, and Vischer has told it the best way he can.

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