[Screen It]


(2018) (voices of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane) (PG-13)

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Animated Drama: A young man, abducted alongside his sister into slavery as a child, is given the encouragement to stand up to his oppressors and help lead an epic battle against them and their kind.
After being abducted as a seven-year-old boy along with his sister, Bilal (voice of JACOB LATIMORE) is a teenage slave living in late 6th century Mecca with his sister, Ghufaira (voice of CHINA ANNE McCLAIN). Despite having once dreamed of being a great warrior and getting motivational life lessons from his mom, Bilal is now resigned to his life serving Umayya (voice of IAN McSHANE) and his sadistic teenage son, Safwan (voice of SAGE RYAN). The only god that Umayya worships is that of greed and money, and thus has his High Priest (voice of FRED TATASCIORE) convince the locals to contribute monetary offerings to their fake idols, while the likes of Okba (voice of MICHAEL GROSS) -- who's in Umayya's inner circle -- peddles smaller versions of those idols when not selling slaves.

Years later, those men are still in power, and Bilal (voice of ADEWALE AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE), now a man, still serves them, as does Ghufaira (voice of CYNTHIA KAYE McWILLIAMS). But when he gets words of advice -- such as that one can only enslave themselves -- from The Lord of Merchants (voice of FRED TATASCIORE) who's preaching the notion of just one God, Bilal stands up to his master and suffers the consequences. The Lord of Merchants then buys Bilal's freedom, and fellow new thinker Hamza (voice of DAVE B. MITCHELL) teaches him how to be a true warrior. What follows is the lead-up to an epic battle between the two sides, with Bilal wanting to get revenge on Umayya and his now adult son, Safwan (voice of MICK WINGERT).

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
It's shocking how effective psychological manipulation can be when used against groups of people, individuals, and even animals. I have no idea if pictures of the latter are real, but I've seen photos of elephants held captive by a simple chain attached to a small spike hammered in the ground. Through learned helplessness, the animal believes it's stuck there despite the ease at which it could obviously escape if it possessed any last strand of hope.

The same has held true for humans for millennia. Despite outnumbering their white owners by often incredible ratios, the vast majority of black slaves in pre Civil War era America didn't fight back simply because they truly believed they could never win. And that mindset, created by evil manipulation, has kept various ethnicities enslaved over thousands of years.

And that scenario has fueled many a Hollywood movie where a hero arises from the downtrodden masses to fight back against the injustices they and their fellow slaves have endured. The likes of "Spartacus," "Ben-Hur" and the more recently, "Birth of a Nation," have featured such characters and their heroics. Even animated films have gotten into the act, most prominently with "The Prince of Egypt."

Now, "Bilal: A New Breed of Hero" joins that two-decades-old film, albeit from a different religious viewpoint. Whereas "TPoE" was about Moses, this movie features Bilal ibn Rabah as its heroic character. For those not familiar with the name, he was one of Islamic prophet Muhammad's most trusted companions and reportedly the first muezzin of that faith.

Considering the Islamophobia gripping some parts of our nation, it will be interesting to see if non-Muslim audiences will even approach the film if they grasp the underlying aspects of what it's about. On the surface, Muhammad, Islam, and Muslims aren't even mentioned by name, and thus the flick will likely be viewed as just a story set long ago in the Middle East where a slave stands up to injustice.

On that simple level, the story -- penned by screenwriters Alex Kronemer, Michael Wolfe, Khurram Hamza. Alavi, and Yassin Kamel -- works decently enough with its underdog protagonist (voiced by Andre Robinson as a kid, Jacob Latimore as a teen and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as an adult), evil villains (Ian McShane and Mick Wingert & Sage Ryan doing the father/son vocal antagonist bit), big-scale battles and plenty of philosophical and motivational speeches about psychological manipulation utilized to subject others as well as that of the self-imposed variety.

As directed by Khurram H. Alavi and co-director Ayman Jamal this first offering from Dubai-based Barajoun Entertainment is often visually spectacular except in one very important aspect. For all of the impressive animation renderings of environmental backgrounds, structures, clothing and such, the characters don't appear real.

Granted, those in the Pixar and other such animation studio offerings usually aren't "drawn" for photorealism. But at least they're done in such a way that you're manipulated into believing they're alive in some sense.

Here, the faces (skin texture, mouth movement, and eyes) give most of the characters a plastic to rubber appearance that makes them feel fake and thus comes off as distracting. It's like watching the same in many a video game, an impression no doubt heightened by the fact that the big battle and other action sequences also give off that game vibe.

Some of the motivational speeches and dialogue likewise comes off as a bit stiff and stilted, but that didn't bother me as much as the facial believability issue. Others might not be bothered by it -- especially if they're accustomed to seeing similar animation results in straight to video offerings -- but considering how great the rest of the pic looks, it's surprising all involved couldn't match that quality in terms of how the characters appear.

And if the characters don't look and feel real -- in relation to all other visual surroundings and accompaniments -- it's difficult, outside of the default settings stemming from the premise, to get lost in the story and root for the underdog to win. An okay but far from outstanding first offering, "Bilal: A New Kind of Hero" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 29, 2018 / Posted February 2, 2018

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