Attempting to balance sweeping historical adventure with eat-your-veggies religious pieties, the animated film Bilal: A New Breed of Hero suggests an Islamicized update of 1950s biblical epics like Ben-Hur or Quo Vadis. Unfortunately, the filmmakers preserve some of the worst tendencies of those films (stilted dialogue, one-dimensional characterizations, and somnolent pacing) while offering too few of their pleasures (delightfully hammy acting, extravagant period details, and super-sized sense of scale).
Inspired by the life of Bilal ibn Rabah (voiced as an adult by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who’s considered the first muezzin in Islam, the film takes place in Mecca, which here appears to consist of little more than a few houses, an open-air market, and the Kaaba, the black granite cube that is Islam’s holiest shrine. Bilal is a slave for a cruel local trader, Umayya (Ian McShane), the most powerful of the pagan merchants who control the town and cynically profit off the local Bedouins who travel there to pray. Through a chance encounter, Bilal becomes a convert to a new monotheistic religion that promises him that all men are born free—and soon enough, he begins to dream of his own liberation from the constrictive bonds of slavery.
The approach that directors Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal take to animating the Middle East is certainly miles away from the kiddie-friendly fantasy of Disney’s Aladdin. Bilal is primarily interested in conveying the depths of its protagonist’s suffering at the hands of Umayya, but while its willingness to confront the ugly realities of its historical milieu may be admirable, the film is a gloomy, tedious muddle of stale aphorisms and go-nowhere plotting. Bilal’s story is packed with potentially resonant themes of freedom, racism, and the morality of violence, but, despite a great deal of stolid speechifying, the film consistently struggles to bring these ideas to life.
Alavi and Jamal also eschew musical numbers and talking animals in favor of realistic character designs and gritty scenes of combat. But the overall quality of the animation is uneven, featuring character movements and facial expressions that often feel slightly mechanical, as if determined by the cold calculus of an algorithm rather than the guiding hand of a human director with a personal vision. Only in the climactic battle sequences, which borrow liberally from Zack Snyder’s 300 and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, do Alavi and Jamal show that they’re capable of delivering some appropriately rousing, if not terribly original, spectacle. But coming after well over an hour of stagnant, unfocused melodrama, it’s simply too little, too late.