×

Film Review: ‘Bilal: A New Breed of Hero’

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.

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)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3576728/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Bilal: A New Breed of Hero'

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)

More Film

  • Metro 2033

    Cult Sci-Fi Novel 'Metro 2033' to Be Adapted as Movie (EXCLUSIVE)

    Russia’s TNT-Premier Studios Company, TV-3 Channel and Central Partnership Film Company – all part of Gazprom Media – have come together to produce a movie based on Dmitry Glukhovsky’s sci-fi novel “Metro 2033,” which has also been adapted as a video game. Filming is due to start next year. The Russian premiere of the movie [...]

  • Beforeigners

    'Beforeigners’' Anne Bjornstad on HBO's First Norwegian Original Series

    HAUGESUND, Norway  —  HBO Europe’s first Norwegian original series, which debuted Aug. 21 exclusively across HBO’s territories, has garnered rave reviews in the Norwegian press. It is also a perfect fit for HBO’s brand and goal to create bold, smart and author-driven shows. Produced by Endemol Shine’s Norwegian prodco Rubicon TV, “Beforeigners” is helmed by [...]

  • Refugees from the besieged Muslim enclave

    Sarajevo’s True Stories Market: Documenting the Atrocities of War

    Reconciliation and dealing with the tragedies of the Yugoslav Wars has been a major focus of the Sarajevo Film Festival and its CineLink Industry Days event in recent years. The True Stories Market, launched in 2016, aims to connect filmmakers with organizations that are researching and documenting the Yugoslav Wars that spanned 1991 to 2001 [...]

  • Ena Sendijarevic’s ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’

    Ena Sendijarevic’s ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’ Wins Top Prize in Sarajevo

    “Take Me Somewhere Nice,” Bosnian director Ena Sendijarević’s coming-of-age story about a teen raised in the Netherlands who returns to Bosnia to visit her ailing father, won the top prize at the Sarajevo Film Festival Thursday night, earning the Amsterdam-based helmer the coveted Heart of Sarajevo Award. The jury heralded the “beautifully photographed, acted, scripted [...]

  • Khadar Ahmed - BUFO - photo

    Bufo Sets Key Cast for Co-Production ‘The Gravedigger' (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  —   Actor Omar Abdi, who starred in the Ahmed-scripted short “Citizens,” and actress Yasmin Warsame, who made her name as a Canadian model, will topline romantic-tragedy “The Gravedigger,” the latest big screen project from Bufo, the Helsinki-based outfit behind Berlinale winner “The Other Side of Hope.” The film follows a Djibouti gravedigger [...]

  • Jacobs Ladder Movie 2019

    Film Review: 'Jacob's Ladder'

    It’s understandable that someone would want to remake “Jacob’s Ladder,” Adrian Lyne’s 1990 head-trip thriller about a Vietnam veteran haunted by fragmentary nightmare visions. I was far from alone in finding the original to be an overwrought but rather thin “psychological” horror film that was more punishing than pleasurable. And it wasn’t exactly a hit, [...]

  • Fiddler A Miracle of Miracles

    Film Review: 'Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles'

    Still beloved and routinely revived 55 years after its Broadway debut — including a Yiddish-language version now playing in New York — “Fiddler on the Roof” is a popular phenomenon that shows no sign of subsiding. Max Lewkowicz’s “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” provides an entertaining if hardly exhaustive overview of how the unlikely success [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content