Director: Khurram H. Alavi
Cast: The voices of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, China Anne McClain, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Michael Gross, Cynthia Kaye McWilliams, Jacob Latimore, Mick Wingert, Dave B. Mitchell, Jon Curry, Al Rodrigo, Andre Robinson, Sage Ryan, Fred Tatasciore
MPAA Rating: (for violence/warfare and some thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:45
Release Date: 2/2/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 1, 2018
Whatever Bilal lacks in technical and narrative polish, it more than makes up for with artistry. This is the first feature from Barajoun Entertainment, an animation studio in Dubai, and it undoubtedly possesses the rough sort of animation that one would expect from a studio still finding its footing. The character models are flat and generic. The characters' movements are choppy, as if the animators skipped every other frame in order to speed up production. It's not the most convincing work of animation, for sure, but despite that, the film is often quite beautiful.
That's primarily because the filmmakers clearly have put most of their efforts into recreating the look of Mecca and the surrounding desert of the late-6th and early-7th centuries. The story is based on the life of Bilal ibn Rabbah, an early follower of Islam who became the first mu'addhin, the singer who leads the call to prayer in the Islamic faith. The screenplay here (written by co-director Ayman Jamal, Alexander Kronemer, Michael Wolfe, director Khurram H. Alavi, and Yassin Kamel) is surprisingly short on religion, save for some statements of monotheism against the polytheistic customs in the region at the time.
As one might expect, at least one central character in Bilal's story is wholly absent from this tale. For the purposes of religious decorum, you won't see Muhammad here, obviously, and the prophet of the faith is never mentioned by name, either. He's only hinted at in vague allusions to a "leader" or "he" or "him."
This forces the filmmakers to shift the purpose of Bilal's story in a fairly significant way. It's mostly about his early life, as his family is taken into slavery by the leader of a tribe of merchants in Mecca. Growing up among a culture that sees no limits to the pursuit of greed, Bilal slowly becomes a rebel, finding strength in the second-hand accounts and teachings of a man who declares that there's only one God and that all men are equal in the eyes of that one God.
One suspects that the lack of religious doctrine and theology is a direct result of the filmmakers' decision to exclude the one character who would, theoretically, be the one to state those things with some authority. The result, though, is a story that becomes accessible through a more philosophical bent. The central question of the film is not what God wants for humanity. It's what human beings are willing to do in order to assert their basic, shared humanity. In a way, they've transformed a religious story into a mostly secular one about freedom.
The young Bilal (voiced as a boy by Andre Robinson and as a teenager by Jacob Latimore), whose mother (voiced by Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) is of African heritage, is captured by soldiers and brought into slavery under Umayya (voice of Ian McShane). Bilal is highly protective of his sister Ghufaira (voiced as a girl by China Anne McClain and as an adult by McWilliams), who's the only family Bilal has left. This gets him into trouble with Safwan (voiced as a teenager by Sage Ryan and as an adult by Mick Wingert), Umayya's cruel and power-hungry son. The local priest, who all but demands that the slaves in the market pay a tithe to the various gods for favor, doesn't take too kindly to Bilal's refusal to accept the local religious customs, either.
As a man, Bilal (voice of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) becomes even more subversive, especially after hearing word of a man who has declared that slaves and their masters are equals. There's an army amassing in the desert, preparing to fight against the injustices of the merchants if they do not correct the errors of their ways.
The specifics of the story might not be familiar to some, but many will recognize the general themes from other religious tales (It's funny how the followers of the central Abrahamic religions share the same general concepts and narratives within their specific customs—even if the details are slightly different—yet oftentimes cannot see just how similar in faith and custom they are, isn't it?). The notion of slavery—both physical and spiritual—runs through so many of these stories, and Bilal's is no exception.
Much of Bilal's struggle is not against the mercantile class but within himself—finding a way to let go of the anger that prevents him from living as a free man. That the story inevitably leads to armed combat in the desert is, perhaps, something of a philosophical inconsistency, since so much of the unseen man's teachings are said to be about forgiveness and saving lives. Then again, its final notes are of forgiveness and reconciliation, so there is that.
The film is thoughtful enough in its exploration of these themes to maintain enough involvement in the story. The real engagement, though, comes from the level of detail and the aesthetic qualities of the film's setting. As the characters occasionally skip and jolt through their motions, they do so against some staggering backdrops of the central city and the wide expanses of the desert. What's most striking, perhaps, is the artists' use of light and shadow in these setting and upon the characters. There's a surprising richness to the texture of this interplay, from Bilal's captivity in a cage to the approaching glow of fiery torches, held by soldiers looking to eradicate opposition to their way of life.
Bilal is an intelligent religious tale, mostly because it focuses on the human story within its faith narrative. Its primary success, though, is a visual one.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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