‘Bilal: A New Breed of Hero’ is teeming with untapped potential
With recent popularized animated pictures like “Paddington 2” and “Cars 3” on the market, “Bilal: A New Breed of Hero,” an animated film about enslavement and religious tyranny taking place 1,500 years ago is an undeniable hard-sell for modern audiences. However, versions of this storyline have in fact sold before, and have successfully awed modern viewers. Take the remarkable masterpiece that is “The Prince of Egypt,” a film about Moses and the oppression of the Israelite people. Though the concept sounds rather dry, the film holds the attention of the audience until the end through a rhythmically captivating soundtrack and impressive character growth. Despite following a somewhat similar narrative to “The Prince of Egypt,” “Bilal” falls far short of its potential.
Taking place 1,500 years ago in a religiously corrupt and slavery ridden portion of the Middle East, “Bilal” begins with the uprooting of protagonist Bilal’s world as his home is invaded, his mother is presumably killed and he and his sister are sold into slavery. The remainder of the film tracks Bilal through his journey from childhood to manhood. Increasingly intolerant with the societal oppression he faces, Bilal ignites a flame within the hearts of his tyrannized community and sparks a rebellion against the slave masters. Despite its startling and emotional beginning, the remainder of the film steadily loses its momentum, lacking a pulse entirely by the end.
However, to the film’s credit, the quality of the animation is truly mesmerizing. The vivid reds, golds, blues, purples and browns used throughout the film, the motif of sand and the slow motion and flashback sequences undeniably add to the cinematic beauty. The flashbacks, which often transport the audience into Bilal’s memories of his mother, who serves as a guiding voice within him throughout the movie, are especially impactful. These moments function as marking points, indicating the growing resistance within Bilal as his intolerance of his figurative and literal chains develops. Also praiseworthy is the film’s telling of a story more diverse than the typical animation flick. Even though the film is set far in the past, it holds some relevance to the current political climate, and its introduction of an unfamiliar narrative about a Middle Eastern (rather than white) hero to American audiences is welcomed and extremely refreshing.
Though components of “Bilal” do hold some value, its overall quality is overpowered by mishaps in character development, unengaging and bland dialogue and oversimplification. Despite his physical aging throughout the film and his progressive internal dissatisfaction with his maltreatment, Bilal’s character evolution is deficient and he comes off as bland. Partly to blame for this is the surface level, black and white relationships that Bilal has with the characters around him. This is a film with no grey characters, and by extension, no questioning of who is righteous and who is evil. Obviously, the man in the black and red garb with narrowed eyes and a smirk on his face is villainous, and of course Bilal and his companions, who dress mostly in cream and tan colored clothing, have stunning eyes and soothing voices, are the upstanding guys. This lack of complexity makes characters incredibly intangible, and prevents viewers from investing any real emotion in them. Tied to a lack of depth is a shortcoming with dialogue. With so much of the film consisting of repetitive, back-to-back moments of struggling and overcoming, dialogue and character growth are placed toward the backburner. The conversations had by characters do the bare minimum, enough to keep the plot going, but not enough to actually make viewers care about what is being said.
“Bilal” is best described as a big ball of unharnessed potential. On the plus side, the film enlightens viewers to an empowering, unique and inspiring true story. At the same time, however, it misses the mark by failing to tell that same story in a non-generic and though-provoking manner. By the end of the film, viewers are left dissatisfied and wondering whether the seven dollars they paid at the box office were worth it, or if they could have obtained equal entertainment from looking up the story of the real Bilal online for free.