It’s rare to see a Muslim hero in an American movie theater, and it’s rarer still to see one in an animated film aimed at older children.
“Bilal: A New Breed of Hero” was inspired by the true-life hero Bilal ibn Rabah, who lived some 1,400 years ago and was an early follower of the prophet Muhammad. “Bilal” is not a Hollywood studio’s attempt to tell a Muslim story, but a $30 million CGI epic from co-directors Ayman Jamal and Khurram H. Alavi, made at a new animation studio they founded in Dubai. After a release in the Middle East and North Africa in 2016, the film has made its way to American audiences.
While the photorealistic animation is stunning and the battle scenes exciting and well-staged, something in the story gets lost, at least for Western audiences unfamiliar with Bilal’s life. Instead of digging into the details of Bilal’s life in pre-Islamic Mecca, the film too often reaches for spiritual platitudes and a cookie-cutter story about rising against oppression.
Part of this is by necessity, as Islam frowns on direct depictions of its religious figures (the words “Islam” and “Mohammed” are never heard in the film). And part of it may be a business strategy, to make Bilal’s story relatable to as wide an audience as possible. But it feels like a missed opportunity to learn about the origins of a culture that is often, and sometimes willfully, misunderstood by the West.
The film opens with a young Bilal (voiced by Andre Robinson) scampering around his home in Ethiopia, playing and pretending to be one of the pagan raiders who have been pillaging the countryside. In a chilling twist, the raiders next come for Bilal’s family, and he and his sister are kidnapped and sold into slavery.
We follow Bilal’s journey as a slave into his teenage years (voiced by Jacob Latimore) and into adulthood (voiced by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje of "Lost"), all under the thumb of a cruel pagan king (Ian McShane, because, hey, are you going to hire Ian McShane to play a good guy?) The scenes of degradation and torture of the slaves are quite brutal, especially when the king has the rebellious Bilal pinned under a giant boulder.
Eventually, Bilal’s freedom is bought by the Abu Bakr, the King of Merchants, a kind man who teaches Bilal both the ways of Islam and the ways of the warrior. The film ends with Bilal leading an uprising of slaves against their masters in the name of equality and justice.
The visuals blend live-action and animation in a colorful and dynamic way — there were moments where I swore I was looking at a photograph. Jamal and Alavi keep the camera swirling and moving around the action, especially in the climactic battle scenes, which seem inspired by “Braveheart” and “The Matrix.”
But the characters themselves are sometimes inconsistently animated, their facial expressions and mouth movements not always in sync with the voiceover dialogue. It’s a technical shortcoming that reflects the film’s larger difficulty in creating relatable characters we can believe in.
While “Bilal” is a noble effort, and quite involving if you sit back and drink in the visuals, there’s a good story here that should have been told better.