"Bilal: A New Breed of Hero" - ★ ★ ½
The exquisitely cinematic, dynamically animated adventure "Bilal: A New Breed of Hero" tells the fact-based story of a 7th-century slave who rose to great prominence as an early follower of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.
Gifted with a strong, attractive voice, Bilal became known as Muhammad's first muezzin, the man who leads the call to worship in the mosque.
But at the beginning of "Bilal: A New Breed of Hero," a very young Bilal (Andre Robinson) dreams of becoming a great and fearsome warrior, prompting his kind and wise mother to redirect his goals.
"A sword and a horse cannot make you a great man," she gently says.
Maybe swords and horses can't make Bilal a great man, but they really boost his efforts to become the fierce warrior of his dreams, engaging the forces of idolatry in a climatic showdown as violent as the computer-animated battles in "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King."
After roving warriors kill Bilal's mother, Bilal and his sister Ghufaira become slaves to idol worshippers, such as the villainous capitalist Umayya (Ian McShane), whose ace-archer son Safwan (Sage Ryan) acts even nastier than his wicked eyebrows.
Bilal grows up to become a handsome man (voiced by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), constantly assaulted by flashbacks of his mother reminding him of her earlier words.
Then Bilal meets a mysterious man named Hamza (Dave B. Mitchell), who fills his new friend with ideas of justice, equality and freedom. "Only you can enslave yourself!" Hamza tells him. "We are all born equals!"
Hamza speaks of the one God who will always be there for Bilal, who suffers such abuse that he doubts Hamza's words.
"All this talk of equality has no meaning for me!" he cries.
The ambitious "Bilal" refers to Muhammad only in passing, sidestepping political land mines by highlighting the social justice elements of the Islamic faith.
Importantly, the main characters in "Bilal" do not look like modestly modified Caucasian characters in period garb, a charge leveled against Walt Disney's popular animated musical "Aladdin."
Directors Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal create an amazing visual experience with fluid crane shots, dramatic wide-angle compositions, tight close-ups, tense tracking shots and widescreen panoramas that might make regular epics drool with envy.
"Bilal" marks the first production from Dubai-based Barajoun Entertainment, and it bears the telltale signs of a startup not quite at the top of its creative game.
The stilted dialogue prefers speechy platitudes ("Hate is a terrible thing!") instead of natural conversations,
The filmmakers, apparently enamored with their first baby, couldn't bear to cut its running-time down to fighting weight by eliminating repetitious flashbacks and redundant images of pounding horse hoofs and sandals snapping into stirrups.
Atli Orvarsson's score pummels us with pounding percussion and telegraphs emotional crescendos with sweeping celestial vocals.
And those stiff, unexpressive faces? They look as if they came straight from a "Call of Duty" video game.
In the bigger picture, "Bilal" succeeds in providing audiences with a wider, better understanding of the Islamic faith.
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Voices by: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, China Anne McClain, Jacob Latimore, Mick Wingert, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Michael Gross
Directed by: Khurram H. Alavi with co-director Ayman Jamal
Other: A Vertical Entertainment release. Rated PG-13 for violence. 105 minutes