'Bilal': Dubai Review

Courtesy of Dubai Film Festival
An empowering story inspired by Islamic tradition.

An African slave boy becomes an inspiring hero in the Middle East’s most ambitious animated feature to date.

Based on the life of the historical figure Bilal Ibn Rabah, an African slave who became one of the early followers of the Prophet Muhammad, Bilal is a grand-scale, fast-paced animated adaptation that is both empowering and inspiring in its call for social justice and equality. The biggest animated feature ever made in the Middle East, its exceptional production values and fetching, lifelike characters sculpted in computer 3D are likely to enthrall Muslim audiences throughout the Arab world. Though the amount of violence in the story, which concludes with a bloody battle between the forces of good and evil, seems way too much for younger viewers, its PG-13 rating should open the road for teen and young-adult audiences, particularly role-playing gamers interested in drama and action.     

The real question is whether a film about an Islamic cultural icon like Bilal, who is practically unknown in the West, can grab the fantasy of international viewers, as intended. Director Khurram H. Alavi and his co-director and producer Ayman Jamal have taken pains to universalize the subject by shooting in English. (An Arabic language version will be available at a later date.) The pic screened at the Dubai Film Festival vaunts a convincing voice cast led by British actors Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Ian McShane. Their dignified dialogue can be a bit on the stiff and formal side, however, even while it resonates with courage and determination.

Produced by hundreds of international animators at the Middle East’s largest animation studios, Barajoun Entertainment, Bilal keeps the action flowing for two solid hours. The film is never puzzling or obscure. Religion aside, it is a strong story well told that creates plenty of emotional momentum.

But set in Mecca, at the dawn of Islam, there is no getting around the need to bring curiosity and an open mind to the historical context. Certainly, this is no Disney cartoon, though it does have distant echoes of Ben-Hur and Spartacus. It recounts the historical struggle of Muhammad's followers to vanquish the corrupt older religion and replace it with a just one. Its powerful message against anger and vengeance in favor of racial and class equality is particularly timely in this dark year of terrorist attacks, and it could be added incentive for festivals to screen a major work of Middle East animation.

Bilal is introduced as a happy 7-year-old boy with braided hair and glowing eyes, living in the desert with his beautiful mother (an Abyssinian princess) and his small sister Ghufaira. In the first scary sequence, they are abducted by fierce horsemen who come riding out of the desert and are sold into slavery.

We next find Bilal as a teenager (voiced by Jacob Latimore) in Mecca. At that time, Mecca was a dusty village and the famous Black Stone of the Kaaba was topped by an angry idol demanding alms. The local religion is a for-profit affair run by a bevy of money-hungry merchants. The most evil of these big shots are Umayya (McShane) and his bloodthirsty son Safwan (Mick Wingert), who mistreat and humiliate their slaves Bilal and Ghufaira.

Their cruelty and greed, however, is challenged by a new religion spread by the followers of Muhammad. One early convert is “the lord of the merchants,” who inspires Bilal to dream of conquering his freedom. Several fine sequences in the desert, including the boy’s fantasy of rising in fury out of the sand riding a white stallion, are eye-popping.

But the merchants don’t intend to relinquish power without a fight. While a fierce, edge-of-your-seat battle ends the pic, the conflict of the compassionate new religion replacing the callous old one continues after the end credits (“War awaits us.”) Is a sequel in the making? More likely Barajoun will find a new regional story to drive its animation machine forward, should Bilal pull its weight at the box office.

The characters are beautifully drawn, particularly Bilal, with his glowing brown skin and golden eyes. One expects him to be an action hero with his tall, strong body, and he does participate in the fight sequences, but his physical prowess is ultimately downplayed in favor of his melodious voice. He is known, in fact, as Islam's first muezzin who called the faithful to prayer.

Production company: Barajoun Entertainment

Voice cast: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, China Anne McClain, Jacob Latimore

Directors: Khurram H. Alavi, Ayman Jamal  

Screenwriters: Alex Kronemer, Michael Wolfe, Khuram H. Alavi, Yassin Kamel

Producer: Ayman Jamal

Directors of photography: Ajdin Durakovic, Khurram H. Alavi, Nareg Kalenderian

Editor: Patricia Heneine

Music: Atli Orvarsson

Animators: Jayesh Yatgiri, Anirudh Iyer

Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Gala Screenings)

Rated PG-13, 113 minutes