Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, despite being a film about one of prophet Muhammad’s most trusted companions, carries themes that are just as relevant today as they were back then. Directed by Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal, Bilal is a spectacularl 3D animation with visuals that far exceed expectations. It’s Dubai’s first animated feature film and, while it stuns in its animated beauty, it’s also subtle enough that it makes the battles Bilal fights feel grounded and universal.
Bilal (voiced by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a young boy filled with hope and unmarred by life’s hardships. His mother is killed by an invading army, after which Bilal and his sister, Ghufaira (voiced by Cynthia Kaye McWilliams), are captured and enslaved, sent to Mecca to work for Umayya (voiced by Ian McShane), a wealthy and powerful slave owner. Ummaya rules over Mecca with an iron fist and has no time for weakness or blithering, as is made clear by his treatment of his son, Safwan (voiced by Mick Wingert).
From childhood, all Bilal wants is to be a warrior. But it’s his mother who reminds him that what makes a man great is not his sword and horse, but being free from the chains you can’t see, like anger and fear. Slowly losing his patience with the way he, his sister, and so many others are treated by the unjust system, which is built upon greed and power, Bilal proves himself to be equal to those looking for freedom beyond what he’s known.
Bilal doesn’t waste any time in showing the violent atrocities committed against innocent people. The film opens with a contrasting scene which shows the happy, peaceful life Bilal leads as a child alongside the imagery of horrors being done to others. It’s happening, but not to him and so he’s untouched by the nature of what will become his reality. The film paints this picture and wounds so deeply within its first few minutes that it’s jarring. By the time Bilal is a teenager, the film shifts, and we’re suddenly thrust into a world where he and his sister are slaves, surrounded by wealth and power and prestige, all of which they can’t touch or be a part of. It’s a thinly veiled separation, to live among luxury and not be able to revel in it, their constant mistreatment a reminder of their harsh life.
Visually stunning, the animation is truly top notch. Every detail is noticeable, ever character movement deliberate and fluid. I liken Bilal’s 3D animation to that of more recent video games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted. The team who worked on the 3D animation should be commended because it’s beautiful from start to finish. From the detail of Bilal and Ghumaira’s hair, to the authenticity of the garb, it’s all so very well done. There’s a particular sequence of Bilal racing through the desert atop his horse, sand moving around him like great waves, a glorious blanket of peaceful acceptance and encouragement. This specific scene is powerful in its execution and a sight to behold. It’s in this moment that lifted Bilal from a chained man to one whose mind is set free and this fills the scene with hopeful potential.
Bilal isn’t exactly like modern-day films about religion, it’s more in line with older religious epics like The Ten Commandments, even while never once addressing Islam or saying prophet Muhammad’s name, though the latter would have been unlikely anyway. It’s not overly preachy or anything. It’s infused with a message of hope and struggle, the freedom of one’s mind and body from that which is superficial in our lives. In terms of story and character, however, the film falls a bit short. The film’s runtime is a bit too long and its strength isn’t in the development of its characters. Time passes in the film indicating years of unseen events and it happens often enough that it feels like important character progression is lost. Bilal is also never shown to bond on a more profound level with the characters around him, save for Hamza (Dave B. Mitchell), his mentor. A bit more character interaction would’ve helped to fill in some of the gaps.
It would have also been nice to see a bit more of Ghufaira, Bilal’s sister. So often, she’s used in a way that allows Bilal to express some anger or heartbreak and certain events would have struck more of a chord had they interacted more. Also, I always find it unfortunate when films such as Bilal, which obviously take place in the Middle East and are about its people, is voiced by a cast that is not Middle Eastern at all. Given that the co-directors live in the region and this is a film about one of Islam’s earliest heroes, it would have been ideal to have had the voice roles offered to Middle Eastern and/or Muslim actors, but alas.
Despite a bit of an uneven hero’s journey, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero is ambitious, boasts gorgeous animation and has a solid core that touches on mistreatment and how greed and power factors into the dehumanization of others. The film never once feels like it’s trying to be something it’s not and serves as a good moral story that will touch those who are more intimate with Bilal as an Islamic figure and also those who are not. And that’s because Bilal’s themes are universal and still reflect modern-day issues. Its themes of hope, overcoming hardship and inequality, of trying to be free from an unjust system and treating others, especially those without power and wealth, like they should be treated are what makes this film stand out.