The first animated film from Dubai is based loosely on the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, a companion of Muhammad who is regarded as the first Muezzin (the one who calls believers to prayer). In its ponderousness and clumsily didactic dialogue, it resembles the flat-footed Biblical epics that Hollywood churned out in the fifties and sixties, and though handsomely made, contains an extraordinary amount of violence for the family trade.
In this telling, Bilal is an African boy (voiced by Andre Robinson) seized by slave traders and taken to Mecca (in reality he seems to have been born a slave). There as a teen (Jacob Latimore) he is mistreated by his brutal master Umayyah (Ian McShane) and his son Safwan (Sage Ryan), but as a young man (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) becomes an early convert to the new religion of Islam that threatens the power of Umayyah and others of his greedy ilk, who profit from the pagan idolatry then dominating the Kaaba under the rule of a formidable masked priest (Fred Tatasciore). His suffering escalates at the hands of Safwan (now Mick Wingert), who takes perverted pleasure in humiliating Bilal and his beloved sister Guhfaira (China Anne McClain, then Cynthia Kaye McWilliams).
Muhammad, of course, cannot be depicted, and so Bilal’s introduction to Islam comes via others, including a wealthy merchant (Jon Curry), who purchases his freedom, and the great warrior Hamza (Dave B, Mitchell), who teaches him swordsmanship. The culmination of the film is the battle of Badr in 624, where the Islamic forces defeats the army of Meccan polytheists led by Umayyah. The battle is depicted here as a ferocious encounter, with many one-on-one standoffs, in one of which Bilal kills Umayyah.
“Bilal” follows existing Muslim sources fairly closely, though the script conflates various accounts that sometimes differ (as the Christian Gospels do). It turns the Meccans into crude caricatures of villainy –not simply Umayyah, Safwan and the high priest, but others like the fat trader Okba (Michael Gross). In fairness, however, it must be said that the Muslims are only a bit less stereotypical. They are unfailingly earnest, reciting pieties no less solemn and obvious than that intoned by the Christians in those old, unlamented Biblical epics. That doesn’t help the voice cast, who can bring little subtlety to such material.
The animation strives for realism rather than Disneyesque stylization, and is good of its kind, though the human figures still look fabricated. The visuals slow down too often for purely pictorial effect, and as edited by Patricia Heneine the picture lumbers along for nearly two hours, with individual scenes merely ending in blackouts rather than being linked through transitional devices. Also disappointing is the music, not only Atli Orvarsson’s perpetually swelling background score but the occasional song, one sung by Bilal which is like a bland modern ballad. And the film closes with another that many Westerners, given current religious tensions, may find ill-chosen.
It would have been nice if “Bilal” could have proven a successful cross-cultural event. As it is, however, it basically preaches to the choir, probably destined to appeal almost exclusively to Muslim audiences. And even they may find it too doggedly heavy-handed. A pity, since a great deal of energy and expense obviously went into making it.