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Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal’s 3D-animated historical adventure tale “Bilal: A New Breed of Hero” seems like a compromise between telling an interesting story and staying true to the history. Where “Bilal” exceeds in animation and direction, it lacks in entertaining, cohesive story, possibly owing to either the directors’ desire to remain accurate to Muslim texts or the huge span of time the directors are trying to cover in a single movie.
As a child, Bilal (voiced by Andre Robinson, “Doc McStuffins”) dreams of becoming a warrior. Alavi and Jamal depict his fantasies in bright, vivid colors with dynamic movement; when the characters jump, dive or wrestle, the directors stay with the action, often as though we’re in one long, handheld tracking shot. But when Bilal and his sister are taken for slaves, the palette grows dull, brown and stagnant.
We see Bilal grow up, voiced as an adolescent by Jacob Latimore and then in adulthood by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. He is constantly humiliated by his master Umayya (Ian McShane) and his merciless son Safwan (Mick Wingert, “Sofia the First”), who likes to practice archery on Bilal and some servants.
The servants are practically Disney second bananas, bumbling and frantically protecting their aristocratic charge like the Queen of Hearts’ card guards. But theirs is the sole comic relief in this film, which is tremendously dark at times, especially when Bilal is tortured by having to endure the crushing weight of a boulder on his body.
In the film’s single musical scene, where Bilal sheds tears as he sings a mournful dirge to entertain Umayya and his wealthy friends, there is no reprieve from the darkness; sorrow is these villains’ entertainment, which is psychologically twisted for a cartoon ostensibly aimed at families. Bilal’s singing sounds more like a low, aching moan than actual music.
Bilal, in Muslim texts, is considered the first Mu’adhin, a person who leads the call to prayer and who therefore possesses a beautiful voice; this film chronicles his enlightenment after meeting a benevolent master of merchants, who helps him find both his freedom and his path to the prophet Muhammed. Non-Muslim Westerners who have been reared on the animation of Disney and Pixar have been trained to think that the action would be broken up with a succession of musical interludes and ballads, but “Bilal” is a bit trickier to navigate, as it deals with religious texts and characters.
Whether the story is Muslim or not, telling a tale steeped in centuries-long belief for a mass-market audience is unbelievably difficult. Can you imagine if Mel Gibson had animated “The Passion of the Christ” and composed a series of songs for it to appeal to children? How many op-eds from religious leaders would run on the release date? Or maybe “VeggieTales” already childproofed and packaged that story.
This film occupies an interesting spot in American film releases, that of being a kind of essential educational tool: how many non-Muslims know the story of Bilal? Unfortunately, the filmmakers employ a shorthand in their storytelling, assuming audiences already know about, for instance, the ancient city of Hejaz, which was apparently a center for trade and selling slaves of Arab and African descent, and is integral to the film’s story.
Other characters and story elements become insurmountably confusing if not thoroughly explained; when the master of merchants shows up to aid Bilal and offer him mercy, it’s not clear who the man is or why Bilal is so deferential to him. The same goes for the character of Bilal’s sister, who at one point just disappears, and we are led to think the worst has happened with no explanation before the subject is nearly dropped.
Though the film is at best confusing in its narrative, “Bilal” is still a showcase for the capabilities of animated cinema on the Arabian Peninsula. Every character is rendered with fine details, right down to their full and brush-like eyelashes; they’re not going for exact realism, it seems, but a stylized approximation.
Jamal had to found his own animation production company in Dubai to get this epic made with production values that might appeal to international audiences. That’s no small feat. But the directors strive to tell too much story in too little time.