Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato are talking vegetables that have spawned a $500m kids entertainment franchise that has been nipping at Walt Disney's heels in the market for direct-to-video children's series. Now the Christian-themed US animation phenomenon VeggieTales is recruiting distributors to expand into the international market for the first time.

Big Idea Productions, the Chicago-based company which has shipped around 30m VeggieTales videos in North America, has closed a long-term partnership with Ralph Kamp's international sales concern Odyssey Entertainment to represent the children's animation franchise outside North America.

Kamp is handling Jonah - A VeggieTales Movie, the CGI vegetables' first theatrical release, along with the company's direct-to-video titles, future feature films and myriad merchandising spin-offs. Jonah, a re-telling of the story of Jonah and the whale starring Archibald the Asparagus, has passed $20m at the North American box office through Artisan Entertainment. The follow-up is scheduled to go into production next year.

'We are going to work with distributors to build up awareness,' Kamp said. 'The deal covers all media, so we have the opportunities in TV, video, DVD, merchandise licensing and theatrical. It will take a while to establish awareness, but the quality is so extraordinary that I'm sure we will succeed.'

Founded in 1993 by animator Phil Vischer in a spare bedroom, Big Idea's religious-themed stories started selling in Christian bookstores before exploding across mainstream outlets such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart in the late 90s. The company has generated $500m in retail sales, second only to Disney in sales of a mainstream children's video series, according to Videoscan. In 1999 and 2000, VeggieTales was number one in series sales.

'The international roll out of the VeggieTales over the coming years should be the biggest thing since The Muppets,' promised Terry Botwick, president of Big Idea Productions.