Arts movie review

Freedom from the chains of your heart

‘Bilal: A New Breed of Hero’ brings another rendition of an old moral lesson

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Dave B. Mitchell is Hamza in Bilal: A New Breed of Hero
Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment/Barajoun Entertainment

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero
Directed by Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal
Screenplay by Ayman Jamal, Alexander Kronemer, Michael Wolfe, Khurram H. Alavi, and Yassin Kamel
Rated PG-13
Now playing in select theaters

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero is an interesting first; it is the first feature animated film from Dubai. Even more interesting is the fact that the film is based off of real life warrior Bilal ibn Rabah (580–640 AD), the prophet Mohammed’s first muezzin and the first slave convert in Islam.

The movie opens by noting that it is a story about “equality and freedom” based off of “true events.” However, despite this encouraging opening, the movie plows forward with a rushed plot and choppy dialogue. The voice actors (while including many well-known talents) sound like they are reading directly off a script or perhaps reciting words from a book. The characters have nearly no life to them and sometimes the flow of a scene is made awkward from the intermittent dialogue.

In terms of plot, the story feels like stop-and-go traffic. The film focuses heavily on moments that develop towards the lesson audiences are supposed to learn but then rushes through everything else that happens in-between. The beginning feels like a nice introduction into Bilal’s childhood aspirations to become a hero, yet falsely led me into believing that his childhood would make up the majority of the film. Bilal and his sister’s capture by slaves abruptly ends his childhood sequence, going on to introduce the two children as teenagers in the next scene. As an adult, Bilal (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) meets the Lord of Merchants (Jon Curry), which is again a drawn out sequence of awkward dialogue and “look into the chains of your heart rather than the chains of your arms” reprimands.

Near the end of the movie, there is also a rather heavy emphasis on the war between the greedy lords and merchants who rule over Makkah and those they oppress in the city. While impressively fluid and dynamic in its programmer movements, the depicted battle is rather graphic, which would explain the PG-13 rating. So if you have any squeamish kids, be wary when you bring them to the theater to watch this movie. Otherwise, they could just admire the “cool factor” of the war sequence.

Despite all this, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero isn’t terrible, just a bit clumsy. For children, the movie presents a good lesson: a good person is made up of the sum of his parts and his actions, rather than the state he appears to be in. Bilal may be a slave to his master Umayya (Ian McShane), yet he learns that he can still be a free man in spirit and escape the oppression of slavery by resolve and good character alone.

The CGI work that went into this movie is also noteworthy. The environments are especially beautiful, from the rolling sand dunes of the desert to bustling market places. One thing they also depict well is the emotions of any given character. I particularly loved the work they did for the shifty merchant, Okba (Michael Gross), and the cultish priest (Fred Tatasciore). Okba always had this smile that unnerved you and told you that he’d do basically anything for money. On the other hand, the priest was so mysterious and haunting. He could probably make your skin crawl if you were trapped in a room with him because he was just plain creepy, but it was perfect for the character he was meant to play: a subconscious to the other villains of the film. He was always goading them to act upon the choice that would lead to the most destruction and despair, much like the serpent that convinced Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

At the end of the day, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero is just another run-of-the-mill, teaching-children-good-morals type of movie. We’ve seen this kind of gimmick before, even if it does take it from an Islamic perspective (even though the Islamic faith is never explicitly referred to or mentioned in the film itself).