Film Review: A Bit Heavy on Propaganda, Animated Bilal‘s Visuals Impress

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).

Image courtesy of Variety

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.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.


  1. I just saw the film here in an empty theater in San Francisco. I Loved the artistry and scenes of early Arabic life in the village and the desert scenes. Also impressive were the costumes of the wealthy, gorgeous robes. Their feasting reminded me of Romans Feasting with all the slaves at the ready.

    What might be confusing to a modern westerner is The Who’s Who. The names are hard to make out and there is No clear cut enemy except Greed itself And the profit from Selling idols. So the battle scene is confusing. They’re All The same people.

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