A film that is easier to appreciate than enjoy.
Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, the largest-scale animated film ever produced in the Middle East, is a film that is easier to appreciate than enjoy. Occasionally beautiful, with a rousing but uneven story, the film could have used a more focused vision than that of co-directors Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal, who try to cram too much story and not enough actual plot into the relatively short film.
Based on the early life of Bilal ibn Rabah, an Islamic hero who was born into slavery and was particularly notable for his beautiful singing voice, Bilal is particularly effective at introducing his story in an accessible way for all audiences. The film introduces a variety of historic Islamic characters, and the visuals and story work best together at these moments, as the animators have paid specific attention to character detail.
Bilal is set in Mecca in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and it chronicles Bilal’s life from child to teenager to adult. At the beginning, Bilal (Jacob Latimore) is introduced as the free-spirited son of a princess. But after the murder of his mother, Bilal and his sister Ghufaira (China Anne McClain) become slaves to Umayya (Ian McShane). Jumping forward in time, we follow how poorly the adult Bilal (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Ghufaira (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) are treated by Umayya and his son, Safwan (Mick Wingert), as followers of Muhammad begin to spread the word of a new religion in Mecca.
The film has five credited screenwriters and it feels like it, covering years of important history in a tonally inconsistent rush. The end result is alternately childish, spiritual and brutally violent, and these different vibes never meld together. It also ends rather abruptly, robbing the film of the expected satisfying conclusion.
Visuals are always crucial for animated features, and Bilal does have some striking moments. However, though the characters in particular look incredibly detailed in stasis, their movement is stiff. This is particularly problematic during battle scenes featuring lots of characters moving at once. The awkward movement combines poorly with the overly formal voice-acting as well, which gives Bilal the appearance of a particularly expensive puppet show at times. It’s oddly similar to Robert Zemeckis’ 2009 version of A Christmas Carol featuring multiple versions of Jim Carrey. That film also had excellent characters but odd movement and occasionally drab settings. At least Bilal is doing so on a far cheaper budget.
It is genuinely exciting to see a film that overflows with Middle Eastern characters see a wide release, particularly one made by an abundance of Middle Eastern talent. While Bilal is a triumph for representation in that regard, its flaws show. While several male characters, particularly Bilal, have complex moments and shifting emotional arcs, female characters are mostly noted for their beauty, which is a disappointing aspect of an otherwise progressive film. And yet, despite its problems, Bilal deserves credit for vividly showcasing both a region and religion that have too often been vilified in mainstream entertainment.