Worthy themes and splendid scenery can’t make up for the lack of narrative focus and emotional resonance in “Bilal: A New Brand of Hero,” an ambitious animated tale set at the inception of Islam.
Directors Ayman Jamal, from the Dubai-based Barajoun Entertainment animation studio, and Khurram Alavi, a digital sculptor, deliver a Middle Eastern enlightenment drama and a Hollywood-style family action adventure, with epic aspirations and plenty of creative license.
The film fictionalizes the story of Bilal ibn Rabah — the slave who became a voice for equality and a companion of the prophet Muhammad, who chose him as Islam’s first muezzin, the caller of worshipers to prayer.
We follow the title character (voiced by Andre Robinson, Jacob Latimore and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, as a child, teen and adult) over about 50 years, beginning when Bilal is a happy village boy with a loving Abyssinian mother and a playful sister. His world shatters when invaders on horseback kill his mother and sell the siblings into slavery.
In Mecca, the teenage Bilal struggles to hold on to his dreams while owned by the oppressive Umayya (Ian McShane).
Umayya presides over a group of greedy merchants who have become rich by hawking religious idols. Umayya’s son, Safwan (Sage Ryan, Mick Wingert), is even meaner than his father.
Bilal’s awakening begins with an encounter with an enlightened merchant who opposes slavery and follows the new monotheistic faith. He purchases Bilal, who matures into a noble warrior and a respected moral and spiritual leader.
Good and evil fight it out on the battlefield.
We don’t get many animated adventures with Islamic heroes and historical Arabian settings, and while it may be too intense for younger kids, the film merits note for bringing these elements to Western family audiences.
It additionally provides what appears to be a well-researched picture of Mecca at a significant period in Middle East history.
The CG animation, which features lifelike human and animal characters, sometimes looks unsophisticated. But it often features gorgeous desert vistas and exquisite imagery — enormous idols, for example, or a white horse rising phoenix-like from the sand.
Unfortunately, however, the story suffers from an excess of plotlines, and the filmmakers navigate them connect-the-dots-style. The character interactions are stiff. The dialogue can sound unnatural.
Credited to four screenwriters, the story seems pulled in several directions. Its heart — the brother-sister bond and Bilal’s determination to free his sister from Safwan — barely registers emotionally.
Bilal’s beautiful singing voice, which affects Bilal’s path substantially, also receives insufficient attention.
The battle scenes, meanwhile, though far from shabby, last too long. Depicted as a voice for nonviolence, Bilal spends an inordinate amount of time wielding a sword.
Bilal: A New Brand of Hero
Two and a half stars
Voice cast: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, Jacob Latimore, Mick Wingert
Written by: Alex Kronemer, Michael Wolfe, Khurram Alavi, Yassin Kamel
Directed by: Khurram Alavi, Ayman Jamal
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Note: The movie opens Feb. 2 at AMC in Cupertino and Regal Hacienda in Dublin.
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