Bilal: A New Breed of Hero


A future warrior at play as a child.

(2015) Animated Feature (Vertical) Starring the voices of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, China Anne McClain, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Michael Gross, Cynthia K. McWilliams, Jacob Latimore, Fred Tatasciore, Jon Curry, Mick Wingert, Dave B. Mitchell, Al Rodrigo, Andre Robinson, Sage Ryan, Quinton Flynn, Mark Rolston, John Eric Bentley, Keythe Farley, Sherrie Jackson. Directed by Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal

 

Dubai’s first foray into animated feature films is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it boasts some truly glorious animation. On the other hand, the human characters are almost without expression throughout. It also focuses on a character from the very early days of the Islamic faith, of a figure who was part of the Prophet’s inner circle, although that is only tangentially referred to in the film and of course Muhammad isn’t depicted at all in keeping with their faith.

The movie is (very) loosely based on the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, a 7th century African man who in childhood was taken as a slave and became one of the first followers of the prophet Muhammad. He is in Islamic culture credited with being the first muezzin who calls the faithful to prayer reputedly because of his beautiful voice.

In the film, we see Bilal (Robinson) and his sister Shufaira (Robinson) watch horrified from a closet as their mother is murdered. The two children are taken as slaves and sold to the cruel idol-seller Umayya (McShane) whose son Safwan (Ryan) may be just a little bit crueler than his dad, although more cowardly.

Bilal grows into a man (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who is prized for his singing voice by his master. Run-ins with Safwan to protect his sister has left Bilal discouraged and essentially accepting his fate as a slave, flying in the face of the wisdom his mother taught him as a child. However, there are others in Mecca who disagree with the idol-worshiping money-grubbing slave-oriented economy and atmosphere of the city. Hamza (Mitchell), a noted warrior and the Master of the Market (Gross) both see greatness in Bilal and gradually win him over to monotheism and freedom. However, despite Bilal leaning towards pacifism, they will have to fight for that freedom – in a place called Badr.

This is a very different kettle of fish for animated features. For one thing, it is a story of a Muslim hero and portrays the religion in a very different light than it is generally portrayed in the West. Few will remember this from their history but at one time the Muslims accepted Jewish refugees driven out of Europe and under Arabic rule they thrived and often worked in the great centers of learning established in the Arabic world.

Sadly, a lot of American viewers won’t be able to look past the rhetoric and will see this as Muslim propaganda and while it certainly leans towards a positive vision of Islam, it is no more propaganda than Christian faith-based stories and animations. Americans are sadly notorious for turning away from the unfamiliar.

As mentioned earlier, the animation is a bit uneven but when it’s good, it’s really good. Strangely though, there is an awful lot of violence and cruelty depicted in the film, much more so than in the average children’s animated film which might give some parents pause. However, those parents who wish to teach tolerance as a lesson should certainly high-tail it to their local VOD site of choice or their local DVD/Blu-Ray dealer because that lesson is certainly honed in on. Sure, the dialogue is a bit clunky (the characters rarely use contractions and end up all sounding like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) and full of aphorisms which may drive the average adult batty but it is meant sincerely. I also question the title a little bit; how is a 7th century figure a “new” breed of hero?

The movie got a brief theatrical release in February, more than three years after it had been released elsewhere globally. Likewise, it is only now showing up on home video. This is a pretty solid animated feature which although flawed shows some potential for the studio that the directors established in order to make this film. Although perhaps Americans may continue to resist features that give the colorful and often brilliant history of the Islamic faith, I hope the studio continues to produce them. Learning more about the culture of Islam is the first step in learning not to fear it but rather coexist with it.

REASONS TO GO: The animation is occasionally breathtaking. The story is interesting.
REASONS TO STAY: This is much too long for younger kids. The English dialogue is a bit stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some surprisingly intense violence, child peril, some disturbing images as well as thematic issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the depiction of the Battle of Badr, animators brought to life 5,000 human characters and 1,000 horses – more than took place at the actual battle which involved 1,300 warriors and 270 horses.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up and Away
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Write When You Get Work

Advertisements

The Legend of King Solomon


The 70s called; they want their animation back.

(2017) Animated Feature (The Orchard) Starring the voices of Oded Menashe, Ori Pfeffer, Hana Laslo, Ori Laizerouvich, Nitzan Sitzer, Albert Cohen, Eden Har’el. Directed by Albert Hanan Kaminski

 

King Solomon has over the centuries come to symbolize wisdom. However, even the wisest of men were once the most foolish of teens, and getting over ourselves is a hefty dose of what growing up is all about.

Solomon (Menashe) has only recently ascended to the throne of Jerusalem, once held by his father King David. Solomon’s best friend is a fox named Toby (Laizerouvich) whose speech only Solomon can understand. Bilquis (uncredited), the beautiful but somewhat shallow Queen of Sheba has come to Jerusalem ostensibly to marry Solomon. The teen king, chafing in the shadow of his more noteworthy father, needs to find a way to impress the beautiful Queen.

When Hadad (Sitzer), a man whose city was leveled by David comes before Solomon to reclaim his family ring, Solomon arrogantly refuses. In retribution, Hadad frees Asmodeus, one of the most powerful of demons. Seeking to impress Bilquis, Solomon captures the demon and against all advice brings it into the city of Jerusalem where it escapes and enslaves the citizens of Jerusalem, then throws Solomon high into the air. Solomon should have been killed but he and Toby are rescued by a giant eagle who informs him that the only way to defeat Asmodeus is by the use of the Stone Worm, a powerful talisman hidden in the ancient city of Petra.

Solomon, disguising himself as an impoverished beggar so as not to attract attention to himself, gains entry to the city and finds work as a dishwasher working for the Princess Na’ama (Har’el) who finds out his true identity and determines to help the young king. Chased by Hadad and by the enslaved soldiers of Jerusalem as well as Na’ama’s angry father, Solomon must redeem himself and take back his city or lose everything that his father built.

This is definitely a children’s movie. The appeal is mainly going to be for little ones; we’ve got sassy talking animals, love stories on the level of a six-year-old’s crush on a seven-year-old and humor that consists mainly of pratfalls. With the cutesy talking animals and the dialogue that distinctly talks down to the audience, one gets the sense that the writers thought their target audience is much younger than it really is; either that or they don’t hang out with many seven-year-olds.

Although the subject is Biblical, the movie isn’t preachy in the same way it might be if a evangelical Christian group might have made it. This is mostly meant to be a fun look at a Biblical figure who really hasn’t gotten a whole lot of love from Hollywood despite being one of the best-known figures from the history of Israel. It surprises me frankly that there have been more movies about Achilles than there have been about King Solomon. I guess that being a mighty warrior is sexier than being a mighty thinker.

The music, much of it based on folk song forms of the region, is actually quite nice. The really glaring thing about the film though is the animation. Unlike most animated films these days, it’s 2D and it looks like something Don Bluth might have done – that’s not a knock, by the way. The backgrounds are nicely textured but the animators don’t really succeed in giving their creation life. There’s no soul here and for the most part it feels like something that was done not so much out of a passion for the story but because someone was footing the bill.

Parents who are strong in faith, both Christian and Jewish (and I suspect some Muslims as well) will probably delight in this. Those who aren’t religious should be aware that this isn’t a movie that’s trying to indoctrinate anybody; Solomon comes off as human and even though there are demons present there aren’t hosts of angels or any wise old priests telling him to put his faith in God. I just wish the animation was better and that the writers had given the young audience a little more credit.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the songs are pretty nice.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels like a bad attempt to mimic a Disney animated movie from the 70s. The humor is pretty dumb.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Legend of King Solomon is the first Israeli full-length animated feature that is intended for children.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Davey and Goliath
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
The Bleeding Edge

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


The world needs Fred Rogers more than ever.

(2017) Documentary (Focus) Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Robert F. Kennedy, Yo-Yo Ma, Chtista McAuliffe, Joe Negri, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Elizabeth Seamans, Jeff Erlinger, Tom Snyder, Margy Whitmer, Kailyn Davis, David Newell, McColm Cephas Jr. John O. Pastore, Betty Aberlin, Koko. Directed by Morgan Neville

Entire generations of kids grew up with Fred Rogers, whose PBS television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a mainstay in many households across the country. Rogers himself was an unlikely TV star; soft-spoken, a little bit corny and prone to using silence on his show to allow kids to digest things, he took the conventions of frenetic-paced kids television of the day (the same conventions that remain today) and turned them upside down and inside out. For this he became a beloved figure. Few celebrities have ever been able to relate as well to children as he.

An ordained minister, he eschewed the cloth to utilize the fairly new medium of television in order to spread his gospel of talking to children as equals rather than talking down to them, to listening to what they have to say instead of dismissing it out of hand. He wanted to teach children the virtues of kindness and generosity. He wanted them to know that every one of them are unique and special.

Of course, in later years Fox News seized on this and blamed Rogers for the entitlement of Millennials. As usual, Fox News got it wrong; what he was getting across was that every child is unique and has something different to offer. Some kids are fast runners, some great singers, others are just good at giving hugs. Everything is valid. Of course, Fox News and their ilk have succeeded in getting across that a person’s value can only be measured in dollars and cents. It’s that ridiculous and heartless idea that only people who are gainfully employed in “serious” jobs are successes in life.

The format of the documentary isn’t particularly earth-shattering; it’s essentially what most modern documentaries do; archival footage, talking head interviews and animated sequences (of Daniel Tiger in this case) mixed together. Neville, an Oscar winner for Twenty Feet from Stardom, mixes the elements together in a roughly chronological order and with a wealth of video from Rogers’ show as well as contemporary and archival interviews with Rogers, his family, his colleagues and noted celebrities like Yo-Yo Ma, bring together a picture of the man – who struggled with feelings of inadequacy his entire life – and of the impact of his show, which was clearly considerable.

Rogers helped teach children to deal with real issues, like divorce and death. His show following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy was perhaps his finest moment as kids learned from Daniel Tiger that it’s okay to be sad and to feel bad about someone being assassinated. While Rogers likely wouldn’t have voted for Kennedy (he was a lifelong Republican), he could at least cross party lines and help heal those hurting following a national tragedy. I wonder if any modern Republicans or Democrats could do that today.

In fact, given the recent news of children at the border being forcibly taken away from their parents, one wonders what Fred Rogers would have thought about that? I can only imagine but I have no doubt in my mind his soft voice would be among the loudest in demanding that the practice be discontinued immediately and that the children separated from their parents be returned to them without delay. His wife Joanne, talking about the political division that exists in this country nowadays, asserts that while Fred would have been disappointed in it, he would be at the same time on the front lines trying to heal those divisions rather than complaining about it. He certainly would not give up hope. To me, that’s why America needed Fred Rogers then and why we need him more than ever no and indeed, the world needs men like him always.

If you’re looking for a documentary that gives you a warm feeling of nostalgia, this one delivers. If you’re looking for one that gives you a sense of hope and well-being, this one delivers. If you’re looking for a film that will make you want to be a better person, this one delivers. I hope that we all continue to learn from Fred Rogers the lessons he taught so gently yet effectively. Every neighborhood would benefit.

REASONS TO GO: This is the rare documentary that makes you feel good exiting the theater. It’s a very informative film about Fred Rogers and his TV show. The life lessons taught here continue to be valid.
REASONS TO STAY: The structure of the documentary isn’t particularly remarkable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is perfectly suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The various puppets used on the show were based on people Rogers knew or in the case of Daniel Tiger, on Rogers himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Big Bird: The Carrol Spinney Story
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Annihilation

X-Men


Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

(2000) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, Matthew Sharp, Brett Morris, Shawn Ashmore, Sumela Kay, Katrina Florece, Alexander Burton, Kenneth McGregor, Rhona Shekter, Stan Lee. Directed by Bryan Singer

One of the most eagerly anticipated movies maybe of all time this one, and it had all the ingredients necessary for a monster smash hit; comic-book action, eye candy, a respected director, attractive actors, even a few Names. So is it any good?

Certainly, the movie has a rich storyline to draw from, one over 40 years in the making. There are some differences (a few of them fairly major) from the comic book mythos, but director Singer remained true to the comic’s essential storyline. That’s as well he should, as it is one of the most complex and interesting in comics.

It starts with a concentration camp in Poland, where a young Jewish boy named Eric Lensherr (Morris) is being torn from his parents. The hysterical boy manifests a terrifying power, but it is not enough to save his mother (Shekter) and father (McGregor) from their fates.

Flash-forward to the near future. Mutant children with strange and sometimes deadly powers are manifesting themselves all over the globe. Senator Kelly (Davison) is leading a crusade based on anti-mutant hysteria. Kelly wants these mutants to register themselves as you might register a handgun. Eventually, the senator means to see every mutant locked away in an effort to keep society safe from these potentially dangerous mutants.

Reasonable voices, such as that of respect geneticist Dr. Jean Grey (Janssen) are being shouted down by the hysterics. In the background, the young concentration camp survivor – now an immensely powerful man who can control magnetic fields at whim and who calls himself Magneto (McKellen),  broods and plots. His close friend, the charismatic and immensely powerful psychic Charles Xavier (Stewart), plots and hopes.

Meanwhile in northern Alberta a lonely, frightened teen calling herself Rogue (Paquin) hooks up with a surly, curmudgeonly loner named Wolverine (Jackman). Turns out Wolverine has an incredible regenerative power – he can take a great deal of punishment and heal at an astonishingly rapid rate. With a skeleton laced with a diamond-hard alloy called adamantium and claws of the same material that can shoot out from his knuckles and slice through virtually anything, he can dish it out, too.

The two are attacked in the Canadian wilderness by a lion-like creature called Sabretooth (Mane) but are rescued at the last minute by a strikingly beautiful woman of coffee-colored skin and ivory, silken hair who generates her own weather patterns; she is Ororo Munro, also known as Storm (Berry). With her is a boy-next-door type named Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops (Marsden) who can generate devastating force beams from his eyes. The two take Wolverine and Rogue back to Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, a place where mutant youngsters can learn to control and refine their powers, as well as gain an education in an almost normalized environment.

They are also gearing up for a fight. You see, Sabretooth is one of a crew that works for Magneto that also includes the agile Toad (Park) whose tongue would make Gene Simmons green with envy, and the alluring, shape-shifting Mystique (Romijn-Stamos) whose normal appearance has her with a strange blue skin. Magneto believes that a war between normals and mutants is coming, and that natural selection favors the mutants, but sheer numbers favor homo sapiens, who will kill off all mutants in order to survive.

Xavier believes that humans deserve to survive but that mutants can be integrated into society. He has assembled a group of X-Men to protect humanity and show them that the two species can work together in harmony. Magneto, however, has plans to win over the hearts and minds of the world’s leaders and he needs a powerful mutant to make that happen – and it isn’t Wolverine.

There is a lot more depth to this movie than the average summer action flick. It examines our tendencies to distrust and be fearful of those different from us — skin tones, religion, sexual orientation, whatever. These “mutants” for the most part are no different than the rest of us, externally. What makes them different generally doesn’t manifest except in specific situations which is true of those that society currently does mistrust. “Normal” is really a term subject to broad interpretation, even outside the comic books.

The eye candy is impressive, but it isn’t what this movie is about. A lot of kudos must go to the casting director; nearly every role is perfectly cast, particularly Stewart and Jackman, who physically resemble their four-color counterparts. The script is well-written and thought provoking but never lacking in the action that summer moviegoers crave. The character who are developed are believable.

The trouble is, you would need a 30-hour miniseries to properly develop all of the characters here, so many get short shrift, particularly Storm who deserves more screen time and more background. Also, if you aren’t familiar with the comic as Da Queen is not much of the details are going to go sailing right over your head. You may want to have a 12-year-old boy with you to explain it.

Hugh Jackman ascended to immediate stardom with his performance here. His Wolverine is at the center of the movie, and Jackman carries it effortlessly. Stewart’s Xavier is not that dissimilar to Captain Picard, from Star Trek: The Next Generation but that’s just fine; the role calls for the kind of commanding presence and compassion that Stewart invested Picard with. McKellen is astonishingly compelling, as much victim as villain. One can’t help but sympathize with him even as he’s doing horrible things – the mark of a great movie villain. Not every actor out there could bring those qualities – which were always evident in the comic book version – to life.

It isn’t exaggeration to say that the success of this movie opened the floodgates for Marvel to re-define the superhero movie and become the industry force that they have become. The X-Men franchise has continued to flourish with two off-shoots starring Jackman as Wolverine and three other feature films and a fourth scheduled for release in May and a fifth already on the schedule for 2016. If a movie can be this entertaining and at the same time promote tolerance, I’m definitely on board for the series continuing indefinitely.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling story used to address issues of intolerance and prejudice. Some nice performances, particularly from Jackman, Stewart, McKellen and Berry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too cerebral for those who like their comic book action non-stop. Some purists might complain about deviation from comic book canon.

FAMILY MATTERS: As is necessary for most comic book adaptations, there is a surfeit of action and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackman started his tradition of beginning his day with ice cold showers whenever he is playing the role of Wolverine on this film. He had jumped into the shower at 5 AM, not realizing that there was no hot water. Not wanting to wake up his wife, he just tolerated and had an epiphany that this was what Wolverine felt all the time – wanting to lash out and forced to hold it all in. He uses these cold showers to get into character and has for every film featuring Wolverine.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release had a wealth of features including an Easter Egg scene involving a well-known Marvel superhero who doesn’t appear in the film (but would later get a franchise of his own), a Fox-TV special called The Mutant Watch that is centered around the Senate hearings on Mutant Affairs, an interview with Singer by Charlie Rose and Jackman’s screen test. There was also a method of integrating deleted scenes into the place in the film where they would have been by means of hitting the enter button on your DVD remote whenever an X-Men logo appeared on the bottom right of the screen. A special edition DVD, known as X-Men 1.5 was also released and while it had an entire second disc of special features, most were of the standard production diary sort which were strangely lacking from the initial release. Most of these are also available on the Blu-Ray edition released in 2009.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $296.3M on a $75M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers

 

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Phantom