It’s always interesting to see how countries that don’t have thriving animated film industries
take on the challenge of creating an animated feature film. I’ve found, personally, that the movies are usually pretty mediocre. Making a good animated film is hard and all too often the influences are fairly obvious leaving the movie with little identity of its own.
The other issue is that because most of these films are aimed at children the writing, animation, and story tend to be very simple. The creators are still under the impression that animation is only for children; not families and certainly not adults. They’re usually unambitious movies that try to piggyback on to the tried and true Disney formula but often fail because they mimic it too closely that they cease to have an identity of their own.
While these facts are true for the Egyptian movie The Knight and the Princess, they’re only true to an extent. This film is extremely ambitious and while it doesn’t reach any new heights, it’s an impressively good film for the first feature-length animated movie to come out of the country…ever.
It is a fictionalized account of the 7th-century Arab hero, Mohammed Bin Alkassim, who sets out to defeat the evil King Daher after his men take a group of women and children hostage. Along the way, he falls in love with the beautiful Princess Lola Benny -whom he can only marry if he wins the fight.
It is a grand, epic tale with several musical numbers, a huge cast of characters, and a lot of heart in it. Like with any movie, it has its flaws. This particular film suffers from a real lack of characterization, unnecessary narration, and a slightly over-complicated plot. But it’s clear this is due to a lack of familiarity with the style; it’s obvious that there’s a lot of passion put into this film. And most importantly, it was made to give kids a chance to see themselves in animation.
There isn’t a lot of representation for Arab children in animated films and The Knight and the Princess marks an important moment in film history.
The Narration and Music
I don’t really like narration in my movies and this movie starts with about 2 minutes of very dull and in my mind unnecessary dialogue that seems to go on forever. AND, it is rarely used after that.
If you’re going to use narration, you have to commit to it.
I’ll admit I’m unfamiliar with Egyptian films, so it’s possible that narration is a pretty standard convention and this film is following that.
But this narration also comes across as a missed opportunity for brilliant opening musical numbers. There are eight songs in the whole film – most of them appear in the latter half of the film and some of them I wasn’t even sure were musical numbers due to how they were presented.
Opening numbers are a great way to set your world while still keeping things interesting and engaging. It keeps things interesting; unlike narration which just makes me want to take a nap. And I think it would have made the movie feel…more like a musical?
Most of the musical numbers didn’t really make an impression on me. There were times when characters were singing but I wasn’t sure if these counted as musical numbers since there wasn’t a lot of dancing or actual music; just some kind of singing. They don’t fit in with the story very well.
But the one number that did make an impression was a love duet between Bin Alkhasim and Lola Benny, where they express how much they miss each other and still love each other, even after years apart.
The singing is beautiful, and even though the English translation was a bit awkward I thought the lyrics were very nice. There’s also some beautiful and ethereal animation; it’s the best in the entire movie.
And credit where credit is due – the musical numbers aren’t bad; the actual singing is quite good and the voice actors are clearly talented. They’re just unmemorable. And that could be due to them being in a different language and in a style that I’m not used to hearing. For all I know, these songs are extremely catchy in Arabic.
Complicated Plot Detours
I don’t mind complicated plots – but this movie is unnecessarily complicated. Aside from the love story and hostage rescue, which are enough to carry the movie on their own, two jinns are enslaved by an evil sorcerer who end up playing a fairly large role in the film.
They’re kind of Aladdin genie rip-offs – but it’s actually done pretty well. They’re legitimately funny.
There’s one scene where the two are trying to search for Alkassim, but they only know they’re looking for Mohammad, grand-son of Mohammad…which as you can imagine in an Islamic country in the 7th century is like looking for a needle in a haystack. So it isn’t surprising they end up identifying the wrong guy as the subject of a prophecy.
But the movie does focus a lot on the djinns’ misadventures, with them trying to free themselves from the custody of an evil sorcerer and then trying to help Alkassim. While it isn’t badly done, it feels pretty unnecessary.
This plot takes up time that could have been spent better defining the relationship between our protagonists since they don’t actually share a lot of screen time or just giving more depth to the characters.
Or they could have made the climactic final battle longer. It felt like it was over too quickly.
There’s also one weird side plot where Alkassim seems to be forced to marry his cousin (not the cousin part that’s weird) but it’s unclear whether she’s just in love with him or if they get married because he leaves her pretty easily for Lola Benny. This probably could have been cut out completely without heavily affecting the plot.
I didn’t see the point of it.
I do respect the fact that they really went all out in trying to make this an epic film, but I think the crew got in a little over their heads.
I’m pretty neutral on the animation style. It’s not bad, but the humans and the backgrounds are in two different styles that don’t mesh very well together in my mind. The roto-scoping, slightly 3-D animation style of the humans works well in certain sections like the battles and bigger musical numbers but the rest of the time, I found it distracting,
And the animation style feels kind of dated. It reminds me a lot of the direct-to-video Disney sequels back in the 90s’ and 00s’. Had this been put out by a major U.S.studio I’d be far more critical of the style. I just have higher expectations of animation in 2021. But for a first animated feature, it’s good.
There’s a lot of room for improvement. I have yet to find a perfect film and this film is no exception. But I also find it hard to complain too much about it because of what this film means to Egypt.
Let’s face it, Middle Eastern representation in children’s media is basically non-existent. I won’t even get into how people from the Middle East are portrayed in adult media because that’s just a whole other can of worms.
This film is important because it not only has good representation but because it tells a story that is important to the Egyptian people. This is going to be a story children are familiar with and they’re going to be able to see people who look and talk like them positively portrayed on screen,
It also calls out some of the stereotypes. The movie goes out of its way to present the Arab merchants as a kind and honorable people rather than violent, as they are in Aladdin’s “Arabian Nights.”
The movie avoids exoticizing the culture and there’s not a single female belly dancer to be seen throughout the whole movie.
And while Lola Benny rejects other suitors, she’s never punished or pushed to get married by her father. Admittedly her dad reminds me a lot of the Sultan just in his character design, but I think that was intentional on the part of the filmmakers.
The film took 20 years to make from conception to finished product; which is an insanely long time I do not doubt that the animation process took them the longest time, considering how detailed many of the scenes are and how long it takes seasoned animators to do their job.
It also explains why the film looks kind of dated.
Even if I didn’t love this film and found it dull in some places, it’s still a historically and culturally significant film that will no doubt inspire a new generation of Arab animators. Either way, I’m glad I found it.
I haven’t reviewed many things from the Middle East and it’s always nice to try something different. I loved learning about the history of this film, just because the making of it is so interesting.
It’s on Netflix, so I do recommend checking it out when you have the chance. I hope this film becomes more popular overseas because I want to see more of what this director can do.
For all we know, we just saw the birth of an Egyptian Studio Ghibli.
And that’s the scoop.
Grade: B –
Year of release: 2019
Length: 96 minutes
Writer: Bashir El Dik
Directors: Bashir El Dik, Ibrahim Mousa
Voice actors: Medhat Saleh, Donia Samir Ghanem, Mohamed Henedy, Maged El Kedwany, Abdel Rahman Abou Zahra, Ghassan Matar, Lekaa El Khamisy.