Depending on how much you expect from Orthodox Jewish video entertainment, the Agent Emes series, and its latest installment, can be described as either an ambitiously produced adventure series with cute, sometimes clever humor, or as the same old low budget, poorly acted dreck that has come before (though I am not sure what has come before – I was raised on Hanna-Barbera). That said, Agent Emes is not as feebly handled as one might expect from a production specifically geared toward a very small, very undemanding demographic. These Leibel Cohen productions at the very least try to put something watchable on screen for young Jewish boys, girls, and their parents.
For example, in classic action movie sequel form, Cohen begins this movie with a prologue that takes place on an airplane as Agent Emes, a teenager named Shimmy with a secret identity as hero detective, faces off with his mortal enemy, Doctor Lo-Tov, a bald villain who’s got something against the Jewish people (not sure if his motivation was explored in a prior volume). The fight ends with Agent Emes jumping from the plane and parachuting to earth – and someone dressed as Agent Emes actually parachutes from an actual plane. Now, again, is this a really cool way to open a film? For me – no. For six year old boys – of course. But am I impressed that the producers went this far to create an “action sequence” when they surely could have staged a similar battle on the ground and saved the time and money? Definitely. Is it commendable that they have some witty moments involving Chipmunk voices, a lame old timer band, and skywriting where a boy thinks the pilot is writing Emah? Sure. There are even about ten different sets. I can’t but appreciate some of the effort put in when my expectations had been so low.
The story which follows is of course preposterous and drawn out (specifically an unforgivably long concert to end the film) as is always the case in kiddie fare, Jewish or otherwise. Something about a Chanukah concert and Dr. Lo-Tov wanting to use a mood changing machine to make the Jews of Shpittsburgh (series must be filmed in Pittsburgh) sad. Why? Because when Jews are happy Hashem helps them…or something like that. If you want your kids watching heavy handed religious themed videos such as these, that is your business – I personally would prefer mine to watch Fraggle Rock like I did. Let the theological lessons come later when a child is ready to process them with some intelligence – or let it come in a school setting where issues can be discussed and debated to some extent.
I would say the biggest problem with this installment (and likely the rest of the series as well) is that the young actor playing Agent Emes, while appealing enough, is not a particularly engaging or enthusiastic performer. He appears very uncomfortable on camera, though this could be because he is older now and the girls are starting to notice that being Agent Emes is not as rad as it seemed a few years ago. Though many of the actors are clearly just friends or relatives of the producers and quality performances are not to be expected, the filmmakers should have used a bit more discretion in choosing their lead. It appears though that the current Agent has outgrown his mustache as the end of the film sets us up for a new, much younger Agent. I wonder if Sholom Ber Cohen will be typecast now as Agent Emes. It may be difficult for him to get other, non-Agent roles.
The cast is rounded out with some okay adult contributions. Agent Emes’s contact and mentor appears to have some sense of his role, a hammy guest role by “comedian” Modi is forced, though the stand out performance actually comes from Rochel McCallister playing Agent/Shimmy’s younger eye rolling sister. I smell spin-off.
At the end of the day, videos like this, serve one purpose and one purpose alone. No, they don’t instill Jewish children with a love of mitzvos and yirat Shamayim. They provide parents who disdain secular children’s television an opportunity to park their six kids under seven years old in front of a video screen for forty-five minutes so they get a much needed break. I may be a film critic, but no one can argue with that.