Bilal: A New Breed of Hero is a commendable effort to provide some welcome diversity on the animated front. Despite some flaws, this is an engaging film with an uplifting and encouraging message.
Originally released in the United Arab Emirates in 2015, Bilal finally makes its way to the U.S. with an English dialogue track.
The film is inspired by Bilal ibn Rabah (580–640 AD), the son of an Arab father and Ethiopian mother, who served with the prophet Muhammad. Much like Christian films that get gun shy about explicitly saying Jesus or Christ, there’s no outright mention of Muhammad.
Taken into slavery at a young age, Bilal (The Maze Runner) and his sister, Ghufaira (China Anne McClain, Black Lightning) endure a harsh life under the rule of Umayaa (Ian McShane, John Wick: Chapter 2). As an adult, Bilal (now voiced by Suicide Squad’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) starts to question his status as a slave and realizes he doesn’t have to endure a life in bondage.
Abu Bakr, a close associate of Muhammad, takes an interest in Bilal and helps him find his voice as Bilal starts to stand against racism and class distinction. Good thing those issues have long since passed us by in 2018. While his freedom is purchased, Bilal is haunted by nightmares about Ghufaira’s (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) fate. When Umayaa feels threatened and wants to keep the slaves in their place, Bilal and his allies must go to war.
The story is perhaps a little too dense as the five credited screenwriters try to cover Bilal’s life in 105 minutes. Audiences familiar with Bilal’s story will likely have an easier time filling in the gaps. For others, the story might play out somewhat confusing. In a perfect world, Bilal’s story would have more time to play out say over the course of at least two films. Stuffing everything in one film leads to some scant character development and unclear motivations. At times it was hard keeping track of Bilal’s friends and allies.
Curiously, there’s still some unevenness with the pacing. Directors Ayman Jamal and Khurram H. Alavi devote too many to reinforce the one-dimensional villains are actually bad guys. Occasionally, the transitions linger long enough to suggest a commercial break is coming, but that’s more indicative of Bilal being their directorial debut than anything else.
Although there’s some lighthearted moments, the film is less geared towards younger children and more for those capable of understanding the more serious themes.
One undeniable aspect of the film are the stunning visuals. Bilal: A New Breed of Hero looks incredible. The animation is consistently gorgeous from the beautiful desert landscapes to the fine details like hair and clothing textures. Some of the character designs were very impressive and gave the film a comic book superhero type visual. With its $30 million budget, it’s clear a lot of time, effort and financing went into giving the film a highly polished look.
Even with its PG-13 rating, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero avoids going too heavy with the violence. The big final conflict plays out like a classic swords and shields war epic except for the notable lack of blood. It looks incredible, but is light on the actual battlefield consequences.
Bilal: A New Breed of Hero has a lot of heart and was clearly made with love about unity with one another. That’s a message we all could use a little more of these days.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Photo Credit: Barajoun Entertainment