Kernel Rating (out of 5): (3.5 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 105 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This film is about a historical figure in the Islamic faith, who served as the religion’s first Muezzin, or the individual who calls Muslims to prayer. But the film is telling a story that is primarily about wealth, corruption, poverty, and faith, with the prevailing message that all people are created equal and that no person should own another or subjugate another. There is a fair amount of violence, though, including various battle scenes with hand-to-hand combat, arrows, sword fights, and other bloody images; slave owners whip slaves off-screen, including women and children; and some other disturbing scenes, including a slave owner threatening to kill a child his own age and another where a corrupt priest plots to hurt a young boy.
‘Bilal: A New Breed of Hero’ is the rare animated film that is rated PG-13, but its messages about equality and oppression are timely and will spark conversations with tween and young teen viewers. How individuals struggle for freedom from mental and physical ‘chains’ is explored in the educational ‘Bilal.’
By Roxana Hadadi
“Bilal: A New Breed of Hero” is a story about Islam that never mentions the word “Muslim” once. That feels purposeful—the animated film is telling a broad, universal story about equality, oppression, poverty, and freedom, and perhaps some (prejudiced) viewers would be turned off if they learned that story comes from an Islamic point of view. But “Bilal” feels very much in line with other religious-based classics like “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur,” films that rejected idolatry and greed and instead encouraged kindness, morality, and human decency. Those themes are never irrelevant, and “Bilal” is another opportunity to explore them with children and families.
“Bilal” makes clear from the beginning that it is an “adaptation of the real-life story of the historical figure,” and its narrative is a little more vague than what you would find from doing your own research on Bilal Ibn Rabah. But that feels like the point of co-directors Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal, who together helm the first film from the United Arab Emirates. The details can be a little fuzzy; the timeline can be a bit indistinct. It is the overall message that is more paramount: that people are created equal; that families should love and protect each other; that everyone deserves a helping hand. Who could argue with any of that?
The film is set in the 6th century, when young boy Bilal (voiced by Andre Robinson as a child, Jacob Latimore as a teen, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as an adult) and his sister Ghufaira (voiced by Cynthia Kaye McWilliams and China Anne McClain) are stolen from their home and sold into slavery, taken to the city of Mecca, where they are owned by the wealthy and brutal master Umayya (voiced by Ian McShane). To Bilal, who lived with his mother and sister in the country, the city is a riot of colors and vendors, people hawking produce, clothing, and especially idols, or little totems of various gods that are supposed to bring them luck.
In fact, the whole city revolves around two things: the accumulation of wealth, evidenced by the prosperous and violent Umayya, and the worship of these other deities, the priest of whom demands offerings from citizens of the city and who stands by Umayya as he buys and sells people. For Bilal and other slaves, their lives are defined by toil and cruelty, day in and day out, until something unexpected happens: a conversation between Bilal and the master of the merchants, who asks Bilal if he wants a different life. “No one is born a slave,” he says to Bilal, and from that first encounter a friendship is born.
But what the master of merchants encourages in Bilal is blasphemy to Umayya and his priest, who control the city together by maintaining control and fear. What could Bilal and his friends do to rise up against them? How could they be free?
“Bilal” is pretty linear in its storytelling, tracing the character’s childhood, teen years, and adulthood as he grows up in bondage and then begins to struggle against the literal chains of slavery and mental chains of greed and corruption. But what the film does well is making it fairly clear to viewers of all ages how essential charity and compassion are, how easy it is to be kind. In one scene in particular, a small boy begs for aid next to the statue of an idol, who passersby toss coins of silver and gold into; no one gives anything to the boy. When Bilal offers him a piece of bread, it is a small loss for him but a monumental gain for the boy. The film asks why wouldn’t everyone make that choice, and it does so subtly but intentionally. And visually, it is often beautiful in its detail: the layers of charms and beads swathed all over the duplicitous priest; the fluttering mane of a horse galloping through the desert; the faces of a crowd of people, of varying ethnicities and complexions, coming together to build their own society according to their own ideal. The diversity on display in "Bilal" is commendable, from its titular figure to his friends and fellow believers.
The film struggles a bit with pacing (it is probably about 10 minutes too long, and drags in various spots); it doesn’t really have room for female characters (Bilal’s sister, often his driving motivation, has little personality of her own); and it’s a little disappointing how much the final third of the film is devoted to an extended battle sequence, complete with slow-motion combat and droplets of blood. That element of the film feels a bit like pandering to an audience the filmmakers thought might be getting bored. But otherwise, the film presents a narrative that feels familiar and yet still radical: Why aren’t we better to one another? What is the purpose of any kind of religious faith, if not to bring people together in aid to each other? Those are questions “Bilal: A New Breed of Hero” is asking of its audience, and we should be listening.
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