OK, I'm seriously confused. So what else is new? I am certainly no Islamic scholar, but I could have sworn that Muhammed wrote (or at least received) the Qur'an, and that the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) was one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the faith (not to state the obvious) founded by Muhammed. And yet this animated film begins, pre-Muhammed, with the pilgrimage and with two characters quoting duties that are incumbent upon them as delineated in, you guessed it, the Qur'an. Maybe there are some subtleties here I'm missing, or perhaps the English soundtrack has some translation issues, but these historical bumps in the road are only part of what ails Muhammed: The Last Prophet.
An animated feature about the founder of one of the great religions of man is certainly not a bad idea, Prince of Egypt notwithstanding. Islam, however, brings with it some inherent difficulties, not the least of which is how a lot of the world views the religion, fairly or unfairly, in the light of world events of the past few years. Add to that the prohibition against physically depicting its prophet, and one is left with a vacuum where a main character should be. Several other main characters are also only referred to, never seen, and so we are left with a constantly shifting point of view, sometimes third person from a follower's standpoint, and, when dealing with Muhammed, suddenly shifting to a first person POV shot. Even these hurdles could probably have been overcome, however, with a more engaging and less, well, cartoonish depiction of the early days of Islam and the literal holy war between its adherents and its foes.
Part of the problem with Muhammed: The Last Prophet may well indeed be chalked up to nothing more than a cultural inequity. Few westerners raised in the Judeo-Christian culture are likely to be aware of several of the actual historical personages surrounding Islam's prophet during his lifetime. That lack of knowledge means most western viewers have little or no context within which to place these characters, so the "bad guys" in the feature seem like generic meanies, always scowling and yelling and decrying Muhammed, without ever providing any real motive, aside, perhaps, from Muhammed's appeal to the lower slave classes who suddenly realize they were created equal to their supposed masters.
The animation style of the feature is fairly reminiscent of a lot of the Rankin-Bass work of the 1980s, as well as, in a peculiar religious twist of fate, Aaron's Magic Village, the 1995 animated feature based on a story by Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. While there are some well delineated characters, from a design standpoint anyway, there's something patently generic about the animation in this feature, adding to its lack of strong appeal. And though I may be falling into the Disneyfied trap of generic tropes, there is virtually no comedic relief in this feature, aside from a wandering drunk who appears from time to time (and I'm not even sure that was intended to be funny). Perhaps the portentousness of the subject matter precluded any comedic elements from being considered, but it sure gives the feature a dry feel throughout that will perhaps limit its appeal to youngsters.
This is nonetheless a commendable effort, at least in inter-cultural proselytizing, if not as an animated feature. As Rodgers and Hammerstein averred in South Pacific, "you've got to be carefully taught" to adopt various prejudices and bigotries, and, conversely, we must all be schooled, preferably at a young age, that religious differences need not necessarily be the basis for conflict. In that vein, there are several nice allusions to various aspects of Islam, including the inherent equality of all people (including women) mentioned above, and a love for the planet which seems especially relevant today. Some Christians may balk at the Assyrian King's assertion that the two religions are like parallel shafts of light emanating from the same source, especially when moments before it's mentioned that Muslims do not believe in Jesus' divinity. But, again, it's a good thing for enquiring minds to think about some of these subjects rather than simply retreat to their ideological talking points without really reflecting on what it all means.
The unenhanced 1.78:1 image sports excellent color and contrast. One wonders why the transfer wasn't anamorphically enhanced, however.
There are standard stereo English and Arabic audio tracks, both of which sound equally excellent. Separation and fidelity are both top-notch. There are also subtitles in both languages available.
The best extra on Disc One is short biographical sketches (voiced by a narrator who is sometimes a bit hard to understand) of the various real supporting characters featured in the film. I in fact suggest starting with this extra before viewing the film as it will give you, if you are like me less versed in the intracacies of Islamic history, a little context. There is also a photo gallery of stills from the film, and an interesting compilation of three Arabic music videos. It's instructive to see how Muslims "do" MTV-style videos, as they obviously do not subscribe to the western paradigm of scantily clad girls striking provocative poses. Finally there are trailers for other Islamocentric films. This special edition also contains a bonus CD of various religiously themed songs, featuring at least one artist known to western audiences: Yusuf Islam, previously known as Cat Stevens.
I wish I could recommend this film more highly, as the intentions of its creators are certainly laudable. Unfortunately it's a largely bland and surprisingly non-engaging look at one of the most fascinating religious personas in history. I suggest renting Muhammed: The Last Prophet to see if you like it well enough to add it to your collection.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet