Review: 'Bilal: A New Breed Of Hero" Starring Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje And Ian McShane

With all the talk of diversity in front of and behind the camera, and with seeing some change happen in the award space, it's still pretty tough to find much change in the land of Feature Animation. . While this past year we’ve had Coco from Pixar with its Mexican/Latin focused story and characters the most are still very white focused when it is about human characters and still mostly about the Western world besides the occasional release of something from the animation mecca of Japan. Here we have a new entry from Dubai by Ayman Jamal and his company Barajoun Entertainment. With all of the excitement for Black Panther, I hope some people take some of that pre-hype energy and take a look at Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, an animated epic with a black hero based on stories from history within the Middle East and North Africa.

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero is based on the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, an important historical figure in the religion of Islam. Bilal is an imaginative young boy who dreams of adventure and being a great warrior but all that ends as his home is raided and his mother is killed, ending with him and his sister being taken into slavery. Bilal and his sister grow up in slavery, owned my Umayya ibn Khalaf, a rich and powerful trader who runs the city of Hijaz. After Bilal becomes a man he meets the master of merchants, Abu Bakr he sees hope through a new faith that is not the same as the many idols the leaders of the city use to the control the people. Bilal’s new faith and restored hope in freedom cause him to clash with Umayya as he seeks freedom for him and his sister.

This is a very pretty film, it’s use of color and character designs. All the characters have great costume looks and silhouettes. The film also has captivating scene transitions, while that might seem like a weird thing to say they took the time to edit and think of ways to make this story epic as much as they can. While watching this I couldn’t help but think of an animated feature by Dreamworks almost 20 years ago, The Prince of Egypt because of the way in which they show and humanize their hero character. You root for Bilal from the moment you see him as a small boy playing hero outside of his house. You root for him through every indignity he suffers through and every step he makes toward freedom. One thing though it’s pretty easy to root for slave getting free from a slave master though. The voice acting in here is solid with the main characters have the more famous actors like Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr. Eko, Adebisi, Killer Croc) as adult Bilal and Ian McShane as Umayya who have the most stand out performances.
One thing that could’ve been done better is the character of Bilal’s sister. She really only does a few things to do; worry about Bilal or get in danger for Bilal to either save or fail at saving. There are only two women characters, to be honest, his sister and his mother. His mother’s memory is a constant part of the story as Bilal constantly remembers her words of wisdom so while she doesn’t do a lot she is handled better and has a bit more importance to the plot. In the end the Bilal: A New Breed of Hero was a very good and entertaining and needed animated feature in these times. It has the lens on a hero who’s not the usual white American or even European character and it’s from a voice that is rarely heard of in the west in film and pretty absent in animation. Parents should also know that there is violence and implied violence even if there is no real gore or blood even with that it’s worth seeing and taking your older elementary or up children to see this as well.

3.5 out of 5 stars