The Baal Shem Tov, an 18th Century Rabbi and Mystic, is believed to be the founder of modern Hasidic Judaism. Tales of his journeys, miraculous encounters, and dispersal of wisdom consist so much of myth and hyperbole, that little in the way of historical fact is available. As those with even a glancing knowledge of religion understand at a certain level, factuality, even for such a recent historical figure, (whose nom-de-record is Yisroel ben Eliezer) is less important than are the lessons imparted. That's where this thoroughly delightful, feature-length collection of animated stories comes in. Full disclosure, I am not Jewish, but that didn't stop me, nor should it stop anyone else from seeking out this enjoyable DVD, full of something different, enlightening, and invigorating.
Voice Talent headliners have always been a mystery to me. I don't see someone's voice as a draw, but for those interested, Mayim Bialik, Roseanne Barr, and DuDu Fisher headline this collection, lending their talents to various stories. The true headliners are these stories and they way they're told through stop-motion animation; tranquil and measured, simple and beguiling.
As though we're sitting in an old-fashioned theater, we see a scholar emerge into the footlights from behind a velvet curtain, introducing each story. First we learn of "The Shepherd's Song", in which the Baal Shem Tov and disciples discover a long-lost, special song, the kind that can cause sheep to frolic, but one that is hard to keep if you grasp it too tightly. "Yaacov And Eliyahu" asks us to ponder just how much devoted religious study is required in order for divinity to be revealed, or if divinity doesn't reveal itself in other ways. "Birth Of The Baal Shem Tov" is a self-explanatory tale, disarming in its simplicity.
After these three tales, writer/director/etc. Tawd b. Dorenfeld (The Anna Cabrini Chronicles) kicks things up a notch, infusing the stories with modern references and even more comedy than before. "The Esrog" speaks of the special citrus used during the celebration of Sukkot, but finds time to introduce a 'Crazy Eddie' style marketplace vendor, videogame references, and breakdancing. "Beans Fit For A Queen" highlights the mystical elements of these stories, with magical beans that make meals seem truly regal. "The Siddur" finishes off this collection nicely, and concludes with our animated puppets taking a curtain call, which, all things considered, seems well deserved, filling viewers with giddy appreciation for what has just unfolded.
Dorenfeld's animation and character designs feature a weird, primitive outsider aesthetic. Characters often sport lumpen faces and crude mouths. His sheep and other farm animals move strangely, and while the sheep are adorable and quite funny, they would likely be looked at askance by Shaun The Sheep and friends, if you catch my meaning. Nevertheless, Dorenfeld creates many truly striking images to go with his retellings of these stories, which are truly compelling in the way only great fables are.
Touting fantastic messages, among which is this one: our good deeds are the true manifestation of God, Stories Of The Baal Shem Tov (AKA Master Of The Good Name) weaves beguiling storytelling with incredible music, entrancing imagery, and humanistic humor. Animation fans absolutely should apply, but any viewer or family looking for something both new and old, something life affirming while also instructional, couldn't do much better than seeking out this DVD. Highly Recommended.