The first animated feature film produced in Dubai, “Bilal: A New Breed of Hero,” tells the story of Bilal ibn Rabah, a companion of the prophet Muhammad, and the first muezzin, who called the Muslim faithful to prayer. It’s an ambitious undertaking for co-director and producer Ayman Jamal, who researched various historical accounts for years before establishing an animation studio in Dubai to produce the film, and the story itself is an epic tale of one man fighting for his freedom from slavery.
Bilal, voiced at various ages by Andre Robinson, Jacob Lattimore and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, is a boy born in Mecca and pressed into slavery with his sister after his mother is killed in a raid. Subjected to the cruel whims of his master Umayya (Ian McShane) and the master’s son Safwan (Sage Ryan and Mick Wingert), Bilal dreams of his freedom. This only seems possible after he encounters a few warriors fighting for equality under one god, not the many false idols peddled by Umayya’s priest merchants in the market, and Bilal joins their resistance.
Jamal, with co-director Khurram H. Alavi, oversee an animated feature that looks and feels far more like a sword-and-sandal epic adventure. There is some truly amazing animation, especially with regard to eyes, hair and fur, and the cinematography features long takes, slow-motion and even hand-held style camera movements. With such a sophisticated cinematic style, and subject matter dealing with slavery, war and violence, one does often wonder who the audience for the film might be. It doesn’t go for the cutesy humor that would appeal to an audience of children, and there are some scenes of punishment and torture that are fairly disturbing. The PG-13 rating might also impede younger audiences.
All that hardship is a part of Bilal’s story, as he learns to become a great warrior, and as he finds spiritual freedom, even while he’s tortured by his cruel masters. The script over-relies on the stereotypical trope of the woman in peril to motivate Bilal, particularly his sister, Ghufaira (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams), subjected to torment at the hands of the sadistic Safwan.
The narrative itself is not particularly efficient — it drags through the first hour, and spends too much time on setup, while rushing through the character establishment and the ultimate climactic battle. Some of the characters are unclear and muddled, especially with regard to how they figure into the religious myths. It may be obvious to those who are more familiar with Islam, but it can be a bit confusing if it’s your first exposure to the story.
Religious epics featuring Muslim heroes are too few and far between, and “Bilal: A New Breed of Hero” is an exciting introduction to this figure. But with such heavy themes, the story seems more suited for a live-action film.
Overall, the message is an inspiring one, of racial and class equality, spiritual freedom, and discovering the power that lies within. Despite the storytelling hiccups, with an ambitious approach to animated filmmaking that looks and feels more like a traditional adventure film, “Bilal: A New Breed of Hero” introduces audiences to a fascinating historical figure little known outside of Islam.