Abducted as a child and enslaved by pagan merchants in pre-Islamic Mecca, Bilal was a native of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). As an adult, while still enslaved, he was tutored in the new faith of Islam by the merchant Abu Bakr, a convert and close associate of the prophet Muhammad. Abu Bakr eventually purchased Bilal's freedom, and the former African slave 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 — and reviewers — 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, the first such production to be made there. In 2015, "Bilal" premiered there, 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 who 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. Horses and camels have coats the consistency of carpet.
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, and their gentle mother (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) 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) in ancient Mecca. Chafing at his and his sister's outcast state, Bilal dreams of their mother and how she once told him that "being a great man means living without chains." Bilal gets into trouble a lot, especially with his master's sneering son, who dogs him in later years, too.
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 the so-called Lord of Merchants, 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 a over-earnestness that makes it feel more like a lesson than entertainment.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains war violence, scenes of torture and some mature thematic material, including a slave auction. 109 minutes.