There is a very worthy and noble intention behind Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, an animated feature film out of Dubai. The film loosely depicts the real life and story of Bilal ibn Rabah, a trusted companion of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in the seventh century, without making explicit references to Muhammad or the Islamic faith. It follows the life of Bilal as he is sold into slavery, ultimately makes his way out and fights against the forces of oppression and paganism.
Bilal is an inspiring tale of identity and goodwill, offering a perspective of a culture and a region not usually represented to Western audiences. Under these circumstances, one wants this film to succeed, to depict these stories well and broaden its audience’s outlook on the world, but as commendable as its efforts might be, Bilal ultimately comes off as awkward and forced.
There are landscapes and artistic nuances of the animation that are pretty incredible in this movie, but the characters all have this off-putting expressionlessness that’s reminiscent of The Polar Express or a cutscene in a video-game. The dialogue is entirely stripped of contractions, perhaps to reach a wider audience who might not be native English-speakers. The effect is a little creepy, solidifying the characters as static. The unnatural speech is also littered with endless platitudes (again, reminiscent of video-game cutscenes) and a straightforwardness that’s generally applied to movies tailored toward children, but the violence and intensity of Bilal don’t seem to allow this to pass as a children’s movie.
The movie begins with a young Bilal and his sister witnessing the assault on their village by marauders mounting red-eyed horses. The men abduct their mother as they watch from a closet, and in the next scene Bilal and his sister have been sold into slavery under the wicked idol seller Umayya. Umayya and his sadistic son Safwan embody evil and greed with thick, arched eyebrows and a ceaseless sneer of conceit. We see Bilal undergo countless atrocities under these masters, as he simply tries to maintain a good life for himself and his sister. But as the movie progresses through Bilal’s life, he gains more and more confidence in himself to defy the abhorrent injustices imposed on him by the servile system, a defiance that only brings him more pain and torture from his masters.
Bilal follows the advice of his mother. He adopts a certain mindset: If he can free himself from the internal chains of greed, anger, and vengeance, the external chains of iron will be powerless. In a climactic moment in the film, Bilal meets the noble and wise Hamza, who enforces the belief in him that no one is born a slave and every man is inherently equal. Bilal’s new attitude infuriates his masters, who nearly have him killed before Hamza is able to buy his freedom. Armed with a newfound sense of purpose, Bilal joins forces with what we historically know are the followers of Muhammad to battle against the wicked slavers and idol-worshippers.
After some intense battle scenes—impressive but certainly not ideal for younger audiences—Bilal eventually becomes an inspirational figure, preaching equality, inclusiveness, and brotherhood. The message is applicable to the present day, especially in the context of how many treat and regard people of the Islamic faith. But this message is constantly force-fed through the dialogue of platitudes, so much so that the message of the film falters and comes off as one long sermon. The film’s attempt to trace the story of Bilal through such a long timeframe leaves the plot choppy and flawed. The running time comes out at 107 minutes, but feels much longer.
There are certainly some noteworthy aspects of Bilal, the best of which are the striking, animated landscapes of desert vistas and ancient architecture. But as much as one would like this film to exceed expectations, it just doesn’t. Co-directors Khurram Alavi and Ayman Jamal released Bilal under Barajoun Entertainment with a budget of $30 million.
Featured Image by Barajoun Entertainment