A New Breed of Hero”
This is a rare animated film made in the United Arab Emirates.
It's about the rise of Islam, without ever mentioning Islam.
It's about one of the closest advisors of Mohammed, without ever
mentioning Mohammed. Whether
you view that as a clever way to get past the knee-jerk antipathy toward
anything Muslim among certain circles, or whether you feel you've been
somewhat hoodwinked by not being told the context, will probably predict
how you'll feel about the movie.
But to try to take it at face value:
Bilal is born into a free family, but when Bilal is still a little
boy, bandits come and kill his Mother and take him and his sister into
slavery. They wind up being
owned by Umayya (the voice of Ian McShane), a cruel and despotic merchant
who worships local idols. Bilal
suffers persecution at the hands of both Umayya and his bullying, entitled
son. Umayya also gives Bilal's
sister to his son as a gift, and Bilal becomes convinced that there should
be no slavery. In the
marketplace he meets someone who tells him that there is only one God, and
that all people are equal in God's sight, a view which appeals to Bilal so
much that he even when he is tortured by Umayya, he doesn't recant his new
convictions. Finally, his new
friend buys Bilal's freedom, and Bilal (the voice of Adewale
Akinnuoye-Agbaje) joins this new movement (which is never called a
Now the backlash comes. Umayya
mounts an army to fight the adherents of the new movement, because Umayya
sees it as threatening his power and control (he's right about that part).
Now comes the part of the movie that's puzzling, given
that so far we've watched cute animated characters struggle against
oppression and tyranny, and of course we want to root for them.
But now they've become an armed camp, delighting in pitched battles
where they slay those who disagree with them.
(It's not called a “jihad,” but that's what it feels like.)
One particular battle scene is quite violent, with bloody
hand-to-hand combat, and high casualties on both sides (including innocent
horses). Yes, it has a PG-13
rating, but there were many children in the screening I attended, because
parents are going to assume that an animated feature is OK for little
kids. This one isn't.
So now we fast-forward to Bilal as an old man, and he finally gets
reunited with his sister. But
what we don't get is any mention of his own family (the “real” Bilal
was married). And the fact
that he's the first “muezzin”-- the one who calls the others to
prayer-- is only a postscript. Yes,
he's the Ethiopian hero in an Arab film, which is ecumenical enough in
itself, but at the end of the day seems to be replacing one type of
violent intolerance for another. (Yes,
we Christians have been known to indulge in that particular corruption of
our ideals, as well.)
Bilal, the freed orphan slave boy who loves his sister, gives us a
sympathetic hero. Bilal the
bitter combat veteran with the murderous expression and blood dripping
from his sword-----not so much. But
if you do choose to see it, you'll know a lot more about the early
development of Islam. Even if
that's not what you intended by going to see an animated film.