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Handsome ‘Bilal’ turns its historical Muslim hero into a history lesson

Young Bilal leads a happy life until tragedy sets him on a new path in “Bilal: A New Breed of Hero.”
Young Bilal leads a happy life until tragedy sets him on a new path in “Bilal: A New Breed of Hero.” .

A fable about a real-life hero from the early days of Islam, the animated adventure “Bilal: A New Breed of Hero” was inspired by the life of Bilal ibn Rabah (A.D. 580-640).

Epic in its ambitions and often visually and emotionally strong, the film nevertheless suffers from a confusing narrative and a style of computer animation that blurs the lines between the real and the animated.

Bilal was abducted as a child and enslaved by pagan merchants in pre-Islamic Mecca. As an adult, while still enslaved, he was tutored in the new faith of Islam by merchant Abu Bakr, a close associate of the prophet Muhammad. Abu Bakr eventually purchased Bilal’s freedom, and he became a warrior fighting for Islam against the forces of slavery, racism and paganism.

It is a tortuous and ancient story, about which different branches of Islam hold interpretations that vary in their nuance. But audiences unschooled in the faith can see “Bilal” as a universal saga. Whether they will also be happy to hear its precepts repeated over and over in an ever more sermonesque style is another matter, and that is one more area where the film falters.

Co-directors Ayman Jamal and Khurram H. Alavi made their $30 million CGI epic in Dubai, where it premiered in 2015, followed by a release in the Middle East and North Africa. It will certainly attract Muslim audiences in the West, too, eager to see a beloved story of their faith dramatized.

Yet the film has difficulties. It is tough to keep secondary characters straight. Names aren’t sharply pronounced and come from animated mouths that are always slightly out of sync with the voices. The fact that characters’ hairstyles and hair color mutate regularly, apart from Bilal’s distinctive braids, doesn’t help.

Still, the animation in “Bilal” offers impressive inanimate beauty in its desert vistas, ancient architecture and richly colored and textured clothing. It’s the characters that appear to be not quite one thing or the other, with faces and bodies that have a sculptural beauty, but skin that looks like hard rubber.

The movie introduces us to Bilal as a boy (voice of Andre Robinson), playing with his little sister and their mother. The horizon darkens, and they are beset by raiders. Their gentle mother is killed.

When we next see the children, voiced by Jacob Latimore and China Anne McClain, respectively, they are teenagers, enslaved by a greedy pagan merchant (Ian McShane). Bilal gets into trouble a lot: In one of the film’s stunning transitions, the adolescent Bilal “borrows” a white stallion and gallops bareback into the desert for a joyride. When he returns, he is a grown man (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).

Bilal now encounters Abu Bakr, and he is ready to hear that “all mankind should be equals and follow the one Creator.” (Islam and Muhammad are never explicitly mentioned in the film.) Bilal’s conversion leads him to defy his master and be tortured for days. After Abu Bakr buys his freedom, Bilal trains as a warrior and takes part in historic battles.

To be sure, there are elements of historic profundity and beauty in “Bilal: A New Breed of Warrior.” Too often, however, they are leavened with insufficient humor and burdened by an over-earnestness that makes it feel more like a lesson than entertainment.

(At Barrywoods, Independence Commons and Regal.)

‘Bilal: A New Breed of Hero’

Rated PG-13 for war violence, scenes of torture and some mature thematic material, including a slave auction.

Time: 1:49.

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