The animated feature Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, is itself not entirely new — it arrives in the U.S. almost three years after it opened at the Dubai Film Festival, and two years after it played commercially throughout the Middle East.
What's more, it's set in roughly 632 A.D. and tells (with a few alterations) the story of Bilal ibn Rabah, an early ally of Muhammad credited with being the first muezzin to lead the ritual of call to prayer.
The story contours, however, will be familiar to many western audiences weaned on movies like Ben Hur and Spartacus. Bilal is captured as a child and raised in slavery, and his independent spirit grows increasingly restless as he matures and achieves a fuller understanding of the entrenched corruption, greed, and inhumanity around him.
This growing independence puts him increasingly at dangerous odds with his master (Ian McShane) and the master's wicked son (Thomas Ian Nicholas). His sense of mercy and justice feed his rebellious streak, but also manifests in acts of kindness. One day, he stops a street urchin from stealing a coin, knowing that the act will warrant a beating. This deed catches the eye of a local nobleman who is an early follower of the Muhammad and his new religion, which offers to Bilal and others the promise of reform to a corrupt system.
Bilal aligns with this new movement and its followers, now powerful enough to warrant a military response from entrenched interests, leading to armed conflict. Its growth runs parallel to the story of Bilal's evolution from slave to student to warrior. (His younger self is voiced by Jacob Latimore, his older version by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
The movie is rated PG-13, and pitched to a slightly younger audience, but it should be noted the climactic battle scenes are more violent than is typical with family-oriented animated fare.
Also, the animation is wildly uneven. Bilal: A New Breed of Hero is the first effort of a United Arab Emirates animation operation built from the ground up (rather than farmed out to an existing studio, as is often the case), and the growing pains show.
There is a stark contrast between the consistent beauty of the settings and backdrops, with their fresh use of color and enchanting vistas (most evident in the nocturnal scenes), and the clumsiness of the figures themselves, especially the human figures. The animators have figured out horses and falcons and snakes, but human body movements are stiff, awkward, and mechanical.
Most problematic are the inexpressive and mask-like faces, which work to place an emotional remove from the characters, as does much of the dialogue, which has itself become awkward in spots as it's made the jump to English.
Bilal: A New Breed of Hero. Directed by Ayman Jamal, Khurram H. Alavi. Featuring the voices AdeWale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jacob Latimore, Ian McShane, and Thomas Ian Nicholas. Distributed by Vertical Entertainment.
Running time: 107 minutes
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence)