After premiering at the Dubai Film Festival at the end of 2015, this beautifully animated work (Dubai’s first animated feature) about a slave who becomes a mighty warrior over a thousand years ago is loosely based on the life story of Bilal ibn Rabah, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed (who is only peripherally mentioned to avoid controversy). Bilal: A New Breed of Hero follows Bilal’s life from boyhood, when he saw his mother cut down by raiders, to his teen years and eventually to young adulthood (when he is voiced by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
Bilal and his sister Ghufaira (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) are slaves to a rich man named Umayya (Ian McShane). Umayya has a vindictive son, Saad (Thomas Ian Nicholas), but he always seems impressed with how quickly Bilal learns any skill that is he is asked to learn—fighting or otherwise. This only deepens Saad’s resentment of the slave.
It’s clear that part of the mission of the film is to set the record straight on a few things about the Muslim father, which is both a good and bad thing, since a great deal of the film ends up feeling like propaganda. Still, the story underscores a doctrine of equality, social justice, and freedom, while never shying away from just how violent this period in history truly was. Although Bilal is a mostly straight-forward history lesson, younger children might find some of the swordplay a bit shocking.
Directed by Khurram H. Alavi (with co-director Ayman Jamal), the movie is a stunning visual achievement, with a great deal of the animation looking photo-real. There’s a massive-scale battle sequence near the end of the film that is so detailed and epic that it must have taken years just to complete that section of the film.
Bilal is absolutely a story worth telling, certainly in a time when the Muslim faith is under constant political attack by a very different type of propaganda. I can’t imagine the film drawing in too many crowds of non-believers, but animation fans in particular will probably be quite impressed by the artistry on display.
The film opens today at the AMC Dine-In Rosemont 18.