Cinematic Releases: Bilal: A New Breed of Hero (2018) - Reviewed

On the cusp of Saudi Arabia finally allowing movie theaters to reopen after some 35 years with scant offering of films slowly making their way into the circles of world cinema, the country’s first 3D computer animated film production Bilal: A New Breed of Hero after kicking around since 2015 is finally making it’s way into movie theaters.  Written, produced and co-directed by Barajoun Entertainment company founder Ayman Jamal with the help of animation and visual effects director Khurram H. Alavi, this English-language and surprisingly violent PG-13 rated animated feature loosely follows (and fantasizes, to some degree) the life of Bilal ibn Rabah. 

Chosen by the Islamic prophet Muhammad, Bilal who was known for his singing voice and rise from slavery is considered to be the first Islamic muezzin or the key figure leading prayer to the mosque.  The effort draws the voice talents of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, Jacob Latimore and Thomas Ian Nicolas, forming an ensemble cast of characters who, filtered through the clich├ęs germane to CGI animated features aimed at young adults, trivialize their efforts and ultimately deliver arguably the most stagnant and dismal drama of freedom vs. slavery since Terry George’s The Promise.  It doesn’t help that this often tedious slog sports the most generic pretend Hans Zimmer score shamelessly imitating the better notes of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.

One of the critics at the press screening I attended was quick to denounce Bilal as ‘propagandist lies’ intended to ‘indoctrinate’ Western audiences to Islam.  While that discussion is open to debate, my own interest in the film remained with the animation and storytelling style as it is unheard of for a Middle Eastern CGI animated film to happen at all.  I will admit the exercise is a step in the right direction for the country trying to get their own film industry off the ground after being buried for so many years, but the film itself is as uneven and unappealing as the infamous animated flop Delgo.  What Western moviegoers will notice right away in Bilal is the inconsistency of the animation. 

Framed in 2.40:1 scope widescreen, this is a film with animation that looks quite good in some scenes and clunkier in others.  The film builds up towards a grandiose desert battle with images that feel lifted out of Disney’s Aladdin and The Lion King but I would be lying if I said the way the characters moved and emoted were consistently fluid.  Take for instance a wide bird’s eye view shot of a battle sequence between two armies, feeling lifted frankly right out of Braveheart.  Where the shot prior to it is crisp with a decent amount of depth of field, the next shot is blurry and unfocused.  I also recall training sequences where a character swings his sword and shield about where the animation looks as stunted and clunky as, God forbid, the animation glimpsed in the British werewolf schlockmeister Crying Wolf 3D.

In good faith, I cannot recommend Bilal to most moviegoers.  Yes it offers diversity and a worldview not seen in Western cinemas but the experience of sitting through it was a dismal chore.  As it stands, it doesn’t hold much appeal for adults and is most certainly not for children thanks to it’s level of violence including a torture scene where a man has a giant boulder set on top of his chest squeezing the life out of him.  I’m all in favor of homegrown animation and do hope to see more polished developments from Barajoun Entertainment, but for now my friendly advice is to give this one a pass.

- Andrew Kotwicki