'Bilal' finally stampedes into theaters -- and it has some spirit
Posted January 31, 2018 1:45 p.m. EST
``Bilal: A New Breed of Hero'' begins with the least subtle of metaphors -- a stampeding equine hell-beast crushing a blossoming flower.
That's just a small taste of the suffering ahead. The animated historical action film, first released overseas in 2015 and just making its way into U.S. theaters, falls somewhere between ``Braveheart'' and ``The Last Temptation of Christ'' on the on-screen torture scale. Woe to the ``Paddington 2'' fan who brings a young child to this PG-13 film, foolishly assuming that it's animated and therefore must be a delightful romp for kids.
But there are positives to be found in this unusual film, which was delayed into arguably the least desired cinematic release date of the year. (The other movie opening wide on Feb. 2, ``Winchester,'' was not screened for critics.) ``Bilal'' has its shortcomings, but it's better than ``Boss Baby,'' and that film is currently nominated for an animation feature Academy Award.
The stampede crushes the flower, then young Bilal's kind mother, and then his prospects for the future. But it doesn't destroy his spirit. Forced into slavery on the Arabian Peninsula, Bilal (voiced without subtitles by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and his sister stand up for good, which results in particularly vicious treatment from the city's wealthiest lord (Ian McShane) and his cruel son.
The script is muscular and clumsy, filled with too many platitudes (``No one is born a slave'' ... ``Great men are those who have the will to choose their own destiny'') and not enough character development. A few of the secondary figures are drawn very similarly, building some unnecessary confusion.
But the themes of religious hypocrisy and good governance are nuanced and disarmingly relevant in 2018 -- especially for a movie that was finished nearly three years earlier. Director Ayman Jamal reportedly built an animation from scratch to make the film, and that independence is an asset throughout.
The visuals themselves are inconsistent, but never boring. The sidekicks seem considerably less painstakingly rendered than the leads. A few of the merchants have the unnatural look and jerky movements of Pirates of the Caribbean animatronics.
Bilal himself, jumping forward in age several times during the film, is more gracefully animated -- as is a sinister masked religious figure who is a well-designed standout on the technical end. The battle scenes are clear and stylish, with a Zack Snyder/``300'' vibe that fits the material.
Sound design is another strength; there's very little actual bloodshed in ``Bilal,'' but the unnerving audio choices from sound designer Hayden Collow and his team add a layered and haunting feel to some of the most harrowing scenes. A marketplace scene where Bilal is tempted by voices is particularly strong.
The final act is a jumble, moving too quickly, as if a sequel was planned and then abandoned at the last minute. None of the above completely quashes the film's well-earned hero moments.
``Bilal: A Brand New Breed of Hero'' took forever to get here, and probably will be missed by the masses. It deserved a better fate.
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture critic.
Bilal: A New Breed of Hero
3 stars out of 4 stars Animated action/drama. Starring the voices of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane and China Anne McClain. (PG-13. 105 minutes.)