Film Review: ‘Bilal’

bilal
Courtesy of Barajoun Entertainment

Dubai’s first animated feature preaches the inclusive, equalizing tenets of Islam via a tale of a slave who becomes a companion of the Prophet.

Dubai’s first animated feature puts top-class artwork to use in a story designed to preach about the inclusive, non-discriminatory aspects of the Muslim faith to younger audiences. Loosely based on the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, a companion of the Prophet who was born a slave and became the first muezzin (the man who calls the faithful to prayer), “Bilal” avoids any immediate controversy by only obliquely mentioning Mohammed, instead emphasizing the socially just origins of the religion. However, the decision to accentuate warrior elements, down to the song over the end credits, perhaps isn’t quite the right tactic in these Islamophobic times, when misunderstanding and misinterpretation are rife.

Among many faithful, “Bilal” will likely be a welcome counterbalance to the disturbingly negative depiction of Muslims in the West, and is the sort of animated feature to which some parents will happily take the kids, and which might earn a place on their DVD shelves. Others will be unsettled by the amount of violence (granted, it was a violent time), and getting non-Muslims to buy tickets will be almost impossible, given the film’s well-intentioned yet rather blatant propaganda elements, and the cast’s marginal name recognition won’t be enough to draw them in. Even so, the potential audience remains huge.

Opening titles push both the social justice side — “humanity’s struggle for freedom and equality” — along with the “inspired by a true story” element, though as usual with such things, inspiration can be quite a leap from history. In the late sixth century, a loving Abyssinian mother is slaughtered by evil marauders as her young children Bilal (voiced by Andre Robinson) and Ghufaira watch from a closet. The invaders take the kids to Mecca, where they’re enslaved by wicked capitalist/idol seller Umayya (Ian McShane), whose son Safwan (Sage Ryan) is even nastier than his father.

Despite lessons learned at his mother’s knee, about how living without the interior chains of anger, vengeance and superstition makes a man great, the adult Bilal (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) grows accustomed to the hopelessness of captivity. Then he meets Hamza (Dave B. Mitchell), who tells him no one is born a slave. Inspired by these words, Bilal is able to regain a sense of dignity, and as the teachings of equality, non-discrimination and monotheism sink in, he joins forces with the Prophet’s followers to battle against the wicked ones.

And battle they do, in bloody fights with galloping warriors riding horses with demonic red eyes. It’s true that the early years of Islam were full of tribal and religious warfare, so one could argue that the pic’s general atmosphere has a generic ring of truth. Yet for a children’s film (it premiered at Doha’s Ajyal Youth Film Fest), the amount of slaying sits uncomfortably with the underlying message of tolerance.

The dialogue is very clear-cut, devoid of all contractions so that people speak in unnatural ways, though perhaps it makes the conversations clearer, especially to audiences whose native language might not be English. More problematic are the never-ending platitudes, all tied to spreading the message of equality. The scripters were surely thinking of “12 Years a Slave” when writing some of the lines, aiming for that nobility-under-servitude vibe with even more one-dimensional villains (well, this is animation). The anti-capitalist message adds an interesting twist, depicting idolatrous Mecca’s merchants as money-grasping slave owners whose only real god is Mammon.

Visuals are extremely well designed, so highly sculptural that certain figures (Bilal and family in particular) often look as if the animators put real actors through their paces and morphed them into illustrations. The evocation of pre-Islamic Mecca, with the Kaaba topped by a statue of a ram-horned god, is nicely done, though some hardliners might not be so happy. Atli Orvarsson’s musical compositions are overloaded with sweeping themes and inevitable, very tiresome soaring vocalizations that preface every emotional moment. Still, it’s more explicable than the closing song, glorifying warriors of God.

Film Review: 'Bilal'

Reviewed at Dubai Film Festival (Cinema of the World), Dec. 9, 2015. Running time: 114 MIN.

Production

(Animated – UAE) A Barajoun Entertainment production. Produced by Ayman Jamal. Co-producer, Carlo Polkinhorn. Executive producer, Arif Jilani.

Crew

Directed by Khurram H. Alavi. Co-director, Ayman Jamal. Screenplay, Alex Kronemer, Michael Wolfe, Alavi, Nareg Kalenderian. Camera (color), Ajdin Durakovic, Alavi, Kalenderian; editor, Patricia Heneine; music, Atli Orvarsson; art directors, Maha Al-Shafie, Yassin Kamel, Helen Saouma; animation supervisor, Jayesh Jagdish Yatgiri; sound, Hayden Collow; sound designer, Justin Webster; line producer, Iqbal Haider.

With

Voices: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, China Anne McClain, Jacob Latimore, Mick Wingert, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Michael Gross, Cynthia Kaye McWilliams, Jon Curry, Sage Ryan, Andre Robinson, Dave B. Mitchell. (English dialogue)

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  1. fyz says:

    Christpoher R,

    Interesting read on the second half of your post, about the film’s initial origins.

    As for the first half, my only comment is .. actually MOST religions have very violent histories and starting points, and some were derived from violence.

    And I think that the universal film tone is quite clear here, with a message that you can find in each religion and culture on this earth, especially those with violent histories, and that message is equality and non-discrimination.

    Whether the violence in these religions were justifiable or not, that is up to you to ponder on and research :)

  2. Adam M says:

    Quite a strange review that, simply by the way it is written, appears to only looks at this international film from a very simplistic and self-centered perspective. The idea that this film is perhaps made for a different audience and culture seems to escape the critic, only seemingly concerned about any religious ties he can make and quickly generalizing about Islamaphobia. While it may be a current issue in the west, one must not forget there are just as many people that are accepting and open minded of other cultures and religions in the west and all around the world. I wouldn’t be so quick to jump to blatant religious conclusions and forget that many stories and cultures originate from religion. There are many examples of this in Hollywood films tied to stories originating from the bible, for example, yet we focus more on the merits of the film.

    I can’t say I’m particularly surprised by the lack of in-depth thought, as the critic does not seem to be very knowledgeable when it comes to animated films either. The jab claiming all animated villains are one-dimensional is an oversight and an embarrassment. The critic would do himself a favor by watching a more diverse range of animated films, and perhaps realizing that “animated” is not a genre, and is instead simply a different form of putting an image on a screen.

    • Christopher R. says:

      Adam M.

      When a film promotes itself as a kids movie or an all age movie, then it is going to receive its fair share of criticism when you get to put slaughter in there, especially at a supposed kids festival, especially a religion like Islam which has very violent history and starting point, no matter how much they try to spin it, this is factually written it is accepted as scripture and history within that culture it is not debatable. Now whether that violence was justified or not is a different story, but how can any violence committed by the followers of any religion claiming it to be for peace and a word of God be truly justified is beyond this discussion. And becomes more difficult to translate it to a universal film tone.

      So I defend the article on some of those indirect points the way I understood them.

      I would also defend the article half way for the comment of one dimensional villains in animation this is very true in most Disney and american films and in other western animated mainstream movies. However the Author should know that not all animated movies are as such, one can only start to look at respected Japanese animated films and understand why, and then move on to European, Russian etc. so generalizing it may not have been necessary here.

      As for this film, it is not being advertised for a specific audience, it pretends to be for the west non Muslims included and to internationalize Islam so to speak. So that puts it in the cross-hairs whether it likes it or not.

      In fact I happen to know how the movie was going to turn up to be and then what it became.

      I have seen it, and I have seen the original ideas and boards. In fact this was a troubled production, rippled with internal politics, the original and true director of the film was suddenly forced out in the middle of the production by the producer and is currently not credited, later the producer claimed director credit himself out of the blue and hired American scriptwriters to supposedly internationalize the film, but they failed in the view of many because they did the exact opposite while introducing shallow characterization on something they never understood or cared about and was just another easy money job scamming Arabs, even though I heard the producer was warned about this by the original director.

      In fact doing a quick background check on the scriptwriters brings up some question marks.

      The original script was a well written and more mature story which was written by the original director and co-written by two other close colleagues of his none of whom have received credit including the original director himself. It had no specific Islamic religious tonalities in fact the original director himself was an Armenian of Christian origin from Lebanon, from what i’ve seen from the original boards I could never imagine it was about a specific religion. The religion was turned into more of an idea and bordering spirituality sometimes in the script with politics playing larger roles and no one dimensional villains, in fact he made you understand why the so called villains where considered as such and made you feel sympathy for the villains in some places. He made the protagonists feel like villains in some places and showed that no man can be holy no matter which religious ideology he follows, before the inevitable neutral end because there can be no real winners in such times. Things were done in very subtle ways with sometimes entire scenes having minimum to no dialogue.

      What remains now is a heavily crippled version of it. A true one dimensionality, credited by all the wrong people desperate I suppose for the headlines and easy cash grabs same is true for the two current self proclaimed directors credited for the film(Ayman Jamal and Khurram Alavi). Which is why the film’s quality and writing and story are a confused mess with no identity. And in some scenes you would see the potential, but those are unfortunately the butchered areas that were left over from the original.

      Shame really. I believe I started reading some more insider details that were popping up recently on the cartoonBrew Bilal Article’s comment section before I decided to write here knowing what I know, interesting things but true things posted there by a few people.

      It would be even more interesting to hear about the details of this production from the point of view of the original team themselves.

      What do you think Variety? ; ).

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