Director: Khuram Alavi, Ayman Jamal
Starring: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jacob Latimore, Ian McShane
Bilal, the debut animated feature from Dubai animation studio Barajoun Entertainment, which premiered at Dubai International Film Festival on Wednesday, December 10, tells the story of Bilal, a young boy kidnapped and forced into slavery, but who dreams of throwing off his shackles and becoming a great warrior.
Set in Mecca in the very earliest years of the Islamic age, Bilal’s adoptive home city is a place of greed and cruelty, with locals worshipping pagan idols.
Bilal’s master, Ummaya, is among the richest and sternest of the city’s merchants, while his son, Safwan, harbours a special dislike for the slave.
Bilal forges an unlikely friendship with the kindly merchant Abu Bakr, who holds fairly revolutionary ideas about slavery, money and the city’s choice of spiritual sustenance. Eventually, Bakr buys Bilal’s freedom and the path towards his destiny is underway.
The production values on display are impressive. The characters are immaculately rendered and some of the scenes are visually stunning, from galloping horses and swooping birds of prey to the vast deserts and epic battle scenes.
The animation and design can genuinely stand alongside the best Hollywood fare, as should be expected from a team that has worked on hits including Shrek and Monsters, Inc.
It’s probably fair to say that the movie isn’t really one for younger children – the subject matter and tone are quite sombre, and the world Bilal inhabits is rather violent.
However, for teenagers, the film’s message of staying true to yourself, and striving for equality and fairness in a material world, holds as much resonance today as it did in seventh-century Mecca.
The film is let down by some clumsy narrative. It doesn’t take an in-depth knowledge of Islam to work out that the lead character is Bilal Ibn Rabbah, one of the closest companions of Prophet Mohammed, who would become Islam’s first muezzin (caller to prayer).
The film does not overemphasise the religious elements of the story, and doesn’t get fully under Bilal’s skin and his motivations. Instead, we are left with vague allusions to a “movement” growing against the worship of idols and wealth in Mecca, and Bilal “calling” to its followers with his beautiful voice – it all seems to tell half a story.
Nonetheless, the movie is a fascinating glimpse into an important period in the history of the region, and the attention to detail paid to the costumes and backgrounds gives an authentic impression of the historical period.
Bilal brings an important story from the region, and the underlying message of empowerment and egalitarianism is one from which we can all benefit.