×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

  • Germany's Leonine Buys ‘Dark’ and '4

    German Indie Studio Leonine Buys ‘Dark’ and '4 Blocks' Producer W&B TV

    Leonine has acquired “Dark” producer W&B TV from Endemol Shine. Fledgling German studio Leonine had already bought Wiedemann & Berg Film and established itself as a Munich-based movies, TV, and digital production and distribution group. It has now added the W&B TV unit to its roster. The production company is behind several big German dramas [...]

  • iHuman

    Cinephil Acquires AI-Themed Political Thriller Documentary 'iHuman' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Tel Aviv-based Cinephil has acquired worldwide rights to Tonje Hessen Schei’s (“Drone”) “iHuman,” a political thriller documentary about artificial intelligence, power and social control. U.S.-based sales agent ro*co films is representing North America on the film, which will have its world premiere in the Frontlight section of Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival. “iHuman” follows the [...]

  • 'Feast of the Seven Fishes' Review:

    Film Review: 'Feast of the Seven Fishes'

    Early on in “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” two characters debate the optimal way to decorate a house for Christmas. One favors an “understated” approach, with white lights and little more; the other argues that the holidays are no time for subtlety, advocating green, red and gold sparkle as far as the semi-blinded eye can [...]

  • Queen & Slim

    AFI Fest Film Review: 'Queen & Slim'

    Going to the movies can feel a lot like agreeing to a blind date: It’s normal to feel a little wary — but also a bit excited — at the potential before agreeing to spend two hours with characters you don’t know. If the film is any good, it wins you over early on, enough [...]

  • Steven Spielberg Branko Lustig

    'He Left Me Speechless': Steven Spielberg Remembers Branko Lustig

    Steven Spielberg has offered a touching remembrance of Branko Lustig, the Holocaust survivor who produced “Schindler’s List” with Spielberg and Gerald Molen and died Thursday in Croatia. “I was heartbroken to hear of Branko’s passing and my thoughts are with his family and friends,” Spielberg said. “When we first met to discuss ‘Schindler’s List,’ he [...]

  • Dylan Brosnan and Paris BrosnanGolden Globe

    Pierce Brosnan’s Sons Paris and Dylan Brosnan Named 2020 Golden Globe Ambassadors

    Pierce Brosnan’s two youngest sons, Paris and Dylan Brosnan, have been named as the 2020 Golden Globe Ambassadors, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced on Thursday evening. Paris and Dylan are also the sons of journalist and author Keely Shaye Smith. The ambassador(s), a title that typically goes to the son or daughter of a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content