Fourteen hundred years ago on the ancient Arabian Peninsula, a young boy named Bilal lived on a farm with his mother and sister. Marauders invaded their village, killing Bilal's mother and capturing him and his sister. After being sold into slavery, Bilal and his sister would live in a world of indentured servitude. His new master Umayyah, rules over the town with an iron fist. His charlatan Priests strongarm citizens into donating toward false idols, basically buying their happiness. As Bilal grows older, so does his desire to be a free man. He may not be the obvious hero who exudes confidence and has a knack for daring deed but, whether he likes it or not, Bilal is growing to be the hero the people need. His cries from freedom aren't going unnoticed, forcing an inevitable showdown between a people's uprising and the status quo.
Bilal (the film) made the rounds on the festival circuit in late 2015, before its 2016 release in the Middle East/North Africa region. Despite being praised in festivals, Bilal laid an egg at the box office. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Bilal finish no higher than 6th in the box office during its release bringing in a total of $1.1m (USD) on a $30m budget. But why?
The short answer: It's not very good.
A longer answer: Bilal seems to be the movie the North American market needs. A different story, from a different culture, set in unfamiliar territory, with a message that transcends culture. Bilal, as a film has the ingredients to make a Pixar/Studio Ghibli/Laika (or whomever you think is the top animation studio in the world) quality movie. Unfortunately, having the ingredients to make a meal, does not make one a top chef. Arguably the best and worst qualities of Bilal are in thee animation. My favourite character is the Charlatan Priest (pictured above). Hiding behind a beautiful mask, the formless Charlatan Priest is wonderfully shaded, with careful detail paid to his long flowing robes and colourful tapestry. You can clearly tell where a large chunk of that $30m budget went. Other characters didn't get the same treatment. Hands were oddly proportioned and hair varied from incredibly detailed to matted clumps of black and dark brown. Only a few scenes got the "Pixar" treatment and could be considered on par with the top animation of the day. However, none of this factors in the lackluster script; but, what of the story if, you can't overlook the animated blemishes.
The biggest gripe from the Middle Eastern reviews was how little the film followed the tale of Bilal Ibn Rabah, the Arab hero for which the story is loosely based. As someone who is unfamiliar with the story, the film doesn't help fill in some of the blanks. What time period is the film set? Where does Bilal live? How did his actions impact his followers? These points of reference would be a great help in understanding the world in which Bilal lives.
Bilal: A New Breed Of Hero isn't the Pixar quality film that the producers were hoping to achieve. It is, indeed a valiant effort and a necessary step in bringing new, unfamiliar stories to different markets.
Rated: PG-13 @ 105 mins