Rating: *** [3 out of 5 stars]
There is perhaps no medium better suited to mythmaking than the animated movie. Liberated from the physical constraints of the material world, cartoon characters are free to defy gravity or to perform miracles at the animator's behest. Animation is the medium of superheroes and gods, ideal for representing the impossible or the sublime: the Medusa's head that turns men to stone, the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound or even the divine revelation of God on earth.
But in "Muhammad: The Last Prophet," an animated retelling of the events surrounding the birth of Islam, the filmmakers faced a distinct challenge: How do you animate a main character who can never be shown? According to Islamic law, the prophet himself, along with many of his close relatives, cannot be visually represented - a restriction that has given rise to a great tradition of abstract motifs in Islamic art, but that would seem ill suited to traditional Disney-style animation.
Richard Rich (who also directed the animated movies "The Fox and the Hound" and "The King and I," among others) has chosen to address this narrative obstacle head-on: borrowing a trick from the 1946 film noir "The Lady in the Lake," he has simply made Muhammad's point of view the audience's own. Imagine wearing a camera strapped to your head like a miner's light, so that the world around you lurches with every step; such is the prophet's-eye-view technique used for scenes directly involving the title character. Fortunately for the audience's sense of orientation, these scenes are relatively rare. Muhammad is also provided with a kind of secular stand-in, a follower who recounts the story of Islam to his young daughter.
"Muhammad: The Last Prophet" was to open in the United States in 2002 but was shelved after the 9/11 attacks for fear of anti-Muslim sentiment. Now, two years after its release in the Islamic world, the film is opening in 37 cities across the country. Its release tomorrow coincides with Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan.
Trimmed from its original 4 1/2-hour running time, at 90 minutes, "Muhammad" still feels long. Its pace is stately as it sketches the essentials of the prophet's life, beginning with his retreat to a cave outside the debauched city of Mecca, where he receives a vision from the Angel Gabriel. Returning to the city, Muhammad begins to preach monotheism and charity, alienating the Kuraysh, the ruling body of pre-Islamic Mecca. (This council of elders is represented as a band of stock cartoon villains, stroking their beards and cackling as they come up with evil plans to oppress Muhammed's followers: "That's it! We'll treat them like outcasts!")
Eventually, the beleaguered Muslims escape to Medina, where they wage several epic battles against the Meccans before defeating them in the miraculous Battle of the Ditch and returning to Mecca in triumph.
Seemingly faithful to its source material, "Muhammad" is a pious and ponderous film, unlikely to move audiences who are not already familiar with its story. The script (by Brian Nissen) feels heavily vetted by Islamic scholars, without wit or whimsy. The literalism of the subjective-camera conceit is at times unintentionally comic: when Muhammed rides a horse into battle, the animal's head bobs repeatedly in the middle of the frame, undercutting the moment's nobility. When he is wounded in battle, a rock flies straight at the camera, and suddenly followers gather to inquire after "our" health. The camera literally puts the viewer in the position of the divine messenger, a disquieting device that never quite accomplishes its task. It's hard to be awed by the sublimity of the offscreen prophet when you are the offscreen prophet, munching Jujyfruits in your theater seat.
The film's animation (hand drawn in the old style, with some computer effects) is at its strongest when it abandons Disneyesque realism and strives for a style of its own. At moments, the visuals approach a kind of divine abstraction. The encounter between Muhammad and the Angel Gabriel, represented only by a glowing orb, is very nearly avant-garde. Some of the later battle sequences are also highly stylized: figures in the foreground appear in sharp relief, while the crowds in the background are blurred. The palette is subdued and earthy, with occasional painted backgrounds of spectacularly lighted cloudscapes, and the texture of velvet in the rich red and blue robes of the Kuraysh is particularly well evoked. The film is set to a loud, surging score by William Kidd, with a special leitmotif reserved for the appearances of the prophet.
"Muhammad: the Last Prophet" will inevitably be compared to Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ." Some may label it propaganda, a 90-minute commercial for Islam. But "Muhammad" is likely to prove less divisive than Mr. Gibson's film, if only because its scenes of violence and battle (there are many) are without gore or graphic detail. The film was explicitly intended to bring Western audiences a more positive vision of Islam than the one experienced through mainstream media.
Midway through the film there is an encounter between Muhammad's followers and a Christian king in Abyssinia who agrees to offer them asylum. Their conversation, one of the most explicitly theological in the film, stresses the link between the two religions: "What you preach," the king marvels, "is the gospel of Jesus," before observing that the two religions are like different beams of light emanating from the same divine source.
Though its execution may at times seem as plodding as the cartoon horse that Muhammad rides into battle, "Muhammad: The Last Prophet" is, in its way, a triumph of globalization, a polished, Western-style entertainment about a distinctly non-Western subject. Its message, like the Abyssinian king's, is finally one of reconciliation: we're not as different as we seem.
'Muhammad: The Last Prophet'
Opens today nationwide.
Directed by Richard Rich; written by Brian Nissen; music by William Kidd; released by Badr International. Running time: 90 minutes. This film is not rated.
Muhammad: The Last Prophet
Directed by Richard Rich
Fine Media Group, in release, UA Battery Park
A kiddie biopic of Islam's founder retold through Hollywood-style animation, Muhammad: The Last Prophet opts for wholesome credos rather than smarmy back talk -- think Aladdin without wisecracks or musical numbers. Delayed here post-9-11, it opens stateside to coincide with the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr; appropriately, the humanist messages of faith and love are not dissimilar in spirit to the children's holiday specials long seen on Christmastime TV. A major formal hurdle is the traditional taboo on visual depictions of Muhammad. The animators get around this by sidelining most of the action to secondary characters. More ingeniously, when Muhammad must appear, the tale switches to the prophet's first-person perspective, so that a climactic battle resembles a video-game screen; the theological implications of such viewer-identification would no doubt make for great post-show family discussions. Though noble in its intent to portray Islam as a peace-loving faith, the narrative flow remains compromised by its catechistic asides and displaced hero. Nonetheless, this utopian image of a pop-culture-friendly, Americanized Islam could be the beginning of more to come -- perhaps Veg-Jihad Tales?
Rating: ** [2 out of 5 stars]
Designed to introduce children to the origins and core beliefs of Islam through the life of its founder, Muhammad, this simplistic animated feature falls firmly within the long tradition of bland, upbeat and earnest religious instructional films. Disney-trained director Richard Rich's company, RichCrest, has specialized since the mid 1990s in shabby-looking, direct-to-video animated films. The film opens with a framing story: Malek (Brian Nissen) and his family are en route to the market in Mecca when they come across a poor and friendless man in the street. Malek's small daughter is excited about their excursion and wonders why her parents abandon it to help a stranger, so Malek tells her the story of his conversion to Islam. When he was a younger man, Mecca was crowded with false idols and rapacious merchants who amassed great fortunes fleecing religious pilgrims. Drunkenness, slave trading, gambling, usury and all-round immorality flourish. Representatives of Mecca's ruling Quarysh tribe protect the interests of the wealthy, who abuse and exploit the poor. Only the strong moral stance of Abu Talib (Eli Allem) helps offset the Quarysh's brutally self-serving attitudes. Abu Talib has a grown nephew named Muhammad, whom he raised after the death of the child's father. Muhammad, a contemplative man, prays regularly in the caves outside Mecca, where the angel Gabriel appears to him (the film steers clear of dates, but history places this event circa 610 AD) and commands him to spread the word of "the one God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus." Muhammad preaches to the poor and disenfranchised, first in private, then in public. His teachings -- that all men are equal in the sight of the one true God, Allah; women should be respected; people must treat each other fairly and care for those in need -- alarm the ruling elite, and Muhammad's followers -- Muslims -- are persecuted, martyred and dispossessed. Muhammad himself moves to Medina -- then Yathrib -- after a Quarysh-backed attempt on his life. Clinging to their faith and enduring great privation, the Muslim converts eventually prevail and return to Mecca in triumph. In keeping with Muslim tradition, Muhammad is neither seen nor heard; sequences that require his presence are presented from his point of view and a narrator reads his words.
Rating: *** [3 out of 5 stars]
EXCERPT: "Director Richard Rich faces the daunting task of not being able to actually show Muhammad in accordance with Islamic law. He and screenwriter Brian Nissen are for the most part successful, focusing on the struggles of Muhammad's followers in 7th century Arabia. The reliance on point-of-view shots, however, is at times disorienting and creates the unintentionally comedic effect of a prophet-cam panning back and forth or up and down as Muhammad moves his head."
This is the age of pessimism. People lament how much bad is this world, rather than how little good there still is. Media is more eager to report on the cracks developing between celebrities than when they get together. The ignorant ones are interested in focusing on differences of opinion between the learned ones... the attention has shifted from adopting the sunnah to the more easy task of criticizing bid'ah. The world is busy cursing darkness while running away from the responsibility of lighting a candle.
Finally I decided to watch it.
I went in there as a critic: how smart was the movie made without 'violating' the fundamental principles. How did the moviemakers handle such a sensitive topic at such a sensitive period?
The movie ran fine, and so did this viewer's tears.
Little did I know, and for that very little before Him do I bow, that the nightingale cannot remain indifferent when that Heavenly Rose's tale is being told...
After all, this little flower was fragrant, thanks to the teachings of that Heavenly Bouquet that was God-sent.
All our knowledge of tajweed and taareekh, sawm and Zakat, all those who talk of fanaa and baqaa... everything because of that Unlettered One!
The Last Prophet: I saw the movie, and it was an experience really!
True. It had drawbacks- the historic details were missing. Some events were left out altogether. Fine.
What were the intentions of the moviemakers? What did Richard Rich, the producer and director, know of the topic, except that he is well versed in the art of animation classics?
It didn't matter. A believer's dreams none but God can shatter.
But the movie I think is of a different sort and the believer's heart to Madina will it escort.
Every scene if full of life and zeal. Especially those earlier days of persecution in Makkah. The persecution that the Holy Prophet and his few-numbered companions had to face when the faith had hardly any political trace. The sufferings of Bilal, the patience of Sumayya, the courage of Hamza, the acceptance of Negus, king of Abyssinia, the death of Khadija and the grief that it evoked among the believers...
The interesting part of the movie is that its dialogues are in contemporary English (since I saw the English version), and not some worn out broken English, as is the case of most of the religious programs made today. Especially the children audience will definitely feel at home.
The young characters are especially well presented and it is through them that the beauty of Islamic etiquettes is presented.
There is a scene where while in Madina during the making of Masjid Nabawi, the children are shown. The boy rushes to help his father in making of masjid, but his devout mother urges him to first take his lessons from the teacher and reminds him the importance of knowledge given by Prophet. As soon as he finishes his lessons, the boy innocently asks the old teacher, 'now can I go help my father in making the masjid?'
Another scene in the movie in which, after the signing of Hudaibiyah treaty (a peace treaty between Muslims of Madina and pagans of Makkah), a lady believer sighs with relief and waits for the days of peace for the spread of Islam.
During the scene where it shows the Holy Prophet climbing the high mount towards Cave Hira (only the camera moves without showing his image), a believer automatically recalls like a reflex action the lines of an Arab poet -
I admit that neither the movie nor this review is worth anything to contain the praises of that Praised One. But this animation film is indeed something new for the Muslim world, which is drifting day by day away from its Blessed Leader. God-willing, it will help the young generation to understand, at least in tidbits, the history of Islam and its Prophet. For adults, it will remind them of the lessons of Madina they learnt in their childhood.
But let me confess in embarrassment, that this generous 'gift' had to be produced in the West. Those who claim to be Muslims are still busy in 'settling differences' and 'urging the need for peace'. The scholars seems to have contended themselves in issuing fatwas for or against projects as 'The Last prophet'. The community is living in a world of fanciful conspiracies, attributing every event to some hidden agenda, in order to justify their inability.
It is strange that some rule telling one's tasbih (rosary) as bid'ah, but no such complaint against walking around with the black cable hanging from one's ears, whether one is using it or not.
Out of sincerity, may I ask the Muslims to hang their heads in shame... that in such times of crisis, they are unable to do anything about it, be it political, economic or intellectual. Those who are willing and able to do anything, their hands and voice are unfortunately restrained by those in authority. Even in Muslim lands, the condition is no better. Ironically enough, it is the Muslims in non-Muslim countries who are fortunate to do something different. As if Islam is becoming a stranger in its own land...
If you ask Jaihoon in one sentence about the feeling that one gets after watching the movie, then I'd rather quote the words of a character who says at the end of the movie, 'I wish I was alive during the lifetime of Prophet's companions' to feel, to experience, to see and hear, to inhale the fragrance of Beloved of Lord!
The atmosphere in the lobby of the Museum of Science and Industry was charged with excitement and anticipation. Some 125 members of the Chicago Muslim community had gathered for a premiere performance of Muhammad, an animated film about the life of the Prophet that will be released to the general market in select cities this weekend. Children and adults alike were eager to see how the makers of the film, Badr International, and director Richard Rich, who directed animated classis such as The King and I, and The Fox and the Hound, handled a topic so near and dear to the community's heart. The after hours showing, with a private viewing of MSI's new exhibit on filmmaking, Arab hors de oeuvres and trays of fruit, and a special appearance by the film's producer, Muwaffaq al-Harithy, contributed to the festive feel of the evening.
90 minutes later, the excitement had, if anything, grown stronger. The children were absolutely thrilled. The adults' reactions were more reserved: a few were unabashedly enthusiastic; most expressed admiration and appreciation of the film with some reservations.
"It's a great movie," said one attendee, "but I wish they had shown more about life in Medina -- the society that was established there, how Muhammad brought people together and the values that they lived by -- justice, and peace, and brotherhood."
This reviewer has to agree. The film is appealing, but it missed an opportunity to showcase many of the positive aspects of Muslim society. While the film briefly touches on Islam's encouragement of compassion, generosity, moderation and humility, and its rejection of corruption, racism, greed, arrogance, and indifference to the suffering of others, the emphasis is primarily on the historical events of the conflict between the powerful Meccan clans and the growing Muslim community led by Muhammad.
The movie opens with a Muslim family headed to market. They encounter an old man, starving, destitute and a stranger to their town, who they take in. He is bewildered by their charity and while he is recovering, the father, Malek, a fictional companion of the Prophet, explains how kindness is mandated in their religion and narrates the story of Prophet Muhammad. The first half of the tale is dominated by the Meccan tribal leader's discussion of the threat Muhammad poses to their society, the martyrdom of Safiya and her husband, the torture of Bilal, the exodus to Abyssinia, and the banishment of the Muslims to the outskirts of Mecca, culminating in the incident at Taif, where Prophet Muhammad was turned away and stoned by the children of the town. There are scenes of the first revelation, numerous conversions are shown, each instance with the repeated mantra of "I bear witness that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his Messenger," and references are made to some of the values Muhammad taught, but the overall impression is of the great opposition to his mission.
The second half of the movie continues with the move to Mecca, the plot to assassinate Muhammad, his miraculous escape in the cave, and the building of the Prophet's mosque. From there, the story focuses almost exclusively on the battles between the Meccans and the newly founded community in Madinah, culminating in the return to Mecca. The film ends with the old man becoming fast friends with Malek's family, especially his winsome young daughter, Siham. Unfortunately, because the latter half of the film focuses so heavily on battles and warfare, and because there are graphic portrayals of the pain of death, with men grimacing, groaning and falling, the lasting impression is of violence and conflict, and the Muslim's deep dedication to Islam despite the suffering they must endure, rather the positive teachings of Islam, the love of Prophet Muhammad that inspired that dedication, or a feeling of the just and harmonious society that was built n Madinah.
One suspects that Anthony Quinn's film, The Message, had a heavy influence in the writing of the script of Muhammad: The Last Prophet. Many of the scenes seem almost duplicated from the earlier film and both movies show the same events -- and have the same holes. Like The Message, Muhammad refrains from depicting the Prophet, as well as most of his close companions, his family and his wives. Abu Talib, Bilal, Salman the Farsi, and Zaid are shown, and one has to wonder where and how the line was drawn.
Some of the other things that irritated this viewer -- a Hollywoodesque portrayal of the good guys and the bad guys -- almost all the Muslims were shown wearing white, the non-Muslims wore colors; the good guys tended to be clean shaven with beautiful teeth, the bad guys bearded, often with physical defects -- no mention whatsoever was made of Aisha or any of the other wives, Nusaiba was left out of Uhud; salaat was only barely touched upon, fasting, zakat and Hajj are missing completely; many of my favorite stories were left out -- like stories of the Prophet kissing his grandchildren and teasing old women, of his mildness in judging and his rejection of favoritism, his fondness for his wife, laying his head in her lap, and his helpfulness at home, darning his own socks, his devotion to prayer and his beautiful dua, the mistakes he made -- in farming and etiquette. I missed these stories which give a human, humane face to the Prophet.
Quite a few of the attendees expressed concern about the level of violence, especially the graphic depiction of physical suffering during the martyrdoms, torture and battle scenes. Oussama Jammal, CEO of the Fine Media group, said that the film is not intended for children under the age of 9, but knowing the Muslim community, it seems inevitable to me that it will be shown to even very young children in Muslim households. My ten-year-old daughters, who accompanied me, were not disturbed by the depictions, but they thought that their five-year-old sister might find the movie too scary.
I do want to say, that despite the film's shortcomings, I believe that the Muslim community, especially Muslim children, will benefit from it, that non-Muslims will learn from it, and that it is a significant and worthwhile effort. The children in the audience were clearly energized by a movie that depicted their community and their Prophet in a positive light. My daughters identified strongly with the characters, and displayed obvious pride not only in the story, but in themselves as Muslims. As a mother, even if I wished the movie had done certain things differently, my children's reaction overwhelms all the negatives I might feel. Given that, I hope that the Muslim community supports it, and I encourage people to make it part of their Eid celebration, despite the steep admission price. Perhaps it if is enough of a financial success, other movies will be made which do more of what I wish this movie did.
I do think the movie will be a useful teaching tool. While the conflict overshadows the teachings of Islam and the establishment of a just and peaceful society, it would be easy to use the movie to highlight and discuss Islamic values and some of the central teachings. Clearly movies, and animation, appeal highly to children, and that makes the movie all the more valuable in the classroom.
Also, to be fair, I should mention that the production values are excellent. The animation is superb, clearly the work of professional, skilled artisans; the characters are appealing, the backgrounds complex, the colors vibrant. And while I might wish for a greater emphasis on the beauty of Islam, the portrayal of Muslims is a far cry the usual Hollywood stereotypes of Arabs; Aladdin this is not. There is no casual acceptance of corruption and greed, no leering at sensuous, dancing women in see through veils, no dirt or vulgarity, and, thank god, no phony Arab accents. Furthermore, the film was obviously well-researched. The producers consulted with a variety of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, and got seals of approval from both Sunni and Shi'i scholars, a move that is refreshingly inclusive.
Finally, I have to admit I'm not sure how non-Muslim audiences will receive the film. The director might have been well-advised to take a cue from the makers of The Prince of Egypt and the King of Dreams -- I suspect a movie titled Amir of Arabia would have attracted a larger audience than Muhammad: The Last Prophet. And I wonder whether the repetition of the shahadah (I bear witness that there is no god but God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Messenger) over and over again as people join the ranks of Muslims will be perceived as an accurate depiction of historical fact or as a form of proselytizing. I wonder how much of the history they will not pick up on. For instance, one scene shows Salman the Farsi suggesting that the Madinans dig a trench to protect their city from assault by the Meccans. Salman is not identified, nor is the rejection of tribalism implicit in the acceptance of his advice mentioned. I worry that the level of conflict could reinforce stereotypes about the supposedly violent nature of Arabs.
On the other hand, the movie presents a wealth of information that is not generally known in non-Muslim society. Similar films, such as The Prince of Egypt, and Disney classics like Peter Pan or Mulan, are rife with violence; Muhammad may seem tame in comparison. There are clear attempts to point out the similarities between Islam and Biblical religions and to make the story appeal to a Western audience -- there are several references to Biblical prophets, the Christian king of Abbysinia is portrayed positively, and the Muslim characters are presented such that non-Muslims can identify with them.
Theater chains in the US and Canada, according to the Fine Media group's press materials, have also questioned whether there is a general audience for the film. Fine Media had to rent theaters and sell tickets on its website for the opening week, November 14-18, which was timed to coincide with Eid ul Fitr. Still, according to the listing on their site, the movie will be showing in 100 theaters in some 40 cities across North America. Some shows -- in Toronto, Chicago, Houston, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Fairfax, VA, Portland OR, Bellevue WA, and other cities -- are already sold out, despite a rather steep ticket price of $15 a seat, adult or child, or a group rate of 50 tickets at $10 each. If attendance is strong, Fine Media group plans a wider release, according to Jammal, who hopes Muhammad will be like Fahrenheit 911 or The Passion of Christ both of which had limited openings, but then were picked up by major theater chains due to audience demand.
A complete listing of cities and theaters, along with contact information for ticket purchases, can be found here. [http://www.finemediagroup.com/user/pages/pages.cfm?pageid=4]
What Our Users are Saying:
Hazim A. gave it a 3 [out of 10]:
A very bad film, first of all, I'm a Muslim, so please I don't need anyone telling me to have more tolerance or less hatred. This movie have the same problem that "The Message: The Story of Islam" had before. It insists on telling Mohammad whole story, but without showing Mohammad or even his closest followers. If you can't show Mohammad character for any reason, then simply don't make a movie where Mohammad is the main character. You can make a movie about Islam without having Mohammad as a central character, which will solve your point-of-view problem. The animation is not very good, the movement is weird, and the camera keeps going back and forward in an unsettling way. I recommend it only for those who want to know about Islam, especially children.
Yaseen R. gave it a 10 [out of 10]:
The camera movement is obligatory in Islam, when depicting the life of *any* prophet in an audiovisual medium, whether it is Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad. A movie about any of the prophets would be done the same way when it comes to camera movements representing the prophet himself, if the movie is done by Muslims. That's for people who commented about this. I don't know why some people are still sneeringly criticizing and hatefully talking about Muhammad. Some people have a lot of hatred in their hearts that almost nothing can cleanse. That is a beautiful movie, for Muslims and Non-Muslims alike.