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.