The virtual world in Belle is called “U,” as in it specializes in “you” and what makes each and every person distinctively them. Though the world is advertised as a place where you can be anyone, nobody can really hide from their true selves. Their qualities, brilliant or flawed, will be dramatically enhanced when they enter for the first time. For a world as vast and ever-expanding as “U,” it’s easy to get lost. To borrow from Don Hertzfeldt’s words in his World of Tomorrow short, many people would “disappear into its safe infinity, to be never heard from again.”
Writer and director Mamoru Hosoda, however, has other plans for his virtual world. Though he has explored such ideas before in previous works like Digimon and Summer Wars, he combines his digital premise with many of his more recent, heartfelt sensibilities in Wolf Children and The Boy and the Beast. The end result is Belle, an emotional and gorgeous remake of Beauty and the Beast, designed to explore the need to be seen and the power of kindness and love to reach across the virtual chasm.
Our hero of the story is Suzu (Kaho Nakamura), a 17-year-old high school student living in a countryside town in Japan. In the real world, she doesn’t interact much with her peers. Not only is she a shy, timid person, but she is still struggling to move on from her mother’s death. She maintains her distance from everyone, including her father (Kōji Yakusho). Unable to sing since she lost her mother, Suzu finds solace in “U,” where she takes on her avatar, Belle, a beautiful singer who quickly becomes a rising star, garnering millions of followers.
All eyes are on Suzu, who tries her best to find Belle’s confidence in the real world. The fact that Belle’s appearance is based on a picture of Suzu’s prettiest classmate instead of Suzu herself says a lot about what she sees in herself. But when the sudden appearance of a Dragon (named “the Beast” by many users) disrupts Belle’s concert, Suzu finds herself drawn to this mysterious figure and desperately wants to help.
With the story having a real world and a virtual world, Hosoda has a lot to juggle. From romantic subplots involving minor characters to its at-times flimsy rule-explaining, the script’s storytelling can be a bit unfocused at times and is in danger of going on for too long. When the real world is presented in classic 2D animation, but the virtual world is presented with a touch of cel shading and 3D rendering, the film trades narrative cohesiveness with some of the most eye-popping visuals you’ll see all year.
One of the most delightful sequences in the film involves a virtual battle that looks like a cross between a Japanese RPG and Settlers of Catan. Rivaling that moment would be another scene at a train station, where the “camera” sits still throughout the shot, watching a handful of human characters awkwardly express themselves – it was the biggest laugh from the crowd, followed by an applause. Belle is full of imaginative, heartfelt sequences like these, as Hosoda tries his very best to tell a coming-of-age story that blends with commentary on the Internet such as cyber-bullying, slander, and misinformation. Oh, and it’s also a remake of Beauty and the Beast.
Even though many of these ideas don’t mesh perfectly, they are all individually handled with care, creativity, and a ton of passion on screen. You can tell that behind the parade of wacky avatars and the endless possibilities that mold the messy but beautiful world of “U,” Hosoda has a core message that the film expresses admirably: amidst the chaos and negativity of the Internet, it can also expand our ability to hear someone and empathize with them. All it takes is for someone to speak and someone else to truly listen.
Even though the world knows Suzu as Belle, as an idol who seems to sing for everyone, her real strength comes from her real-world decisions, as she comes to realize she has the bravery, kindness, and influence in her all along. Accompanying her is a wide assortment of characters: her best friend Hiroka (Rira Ikuta), his childhood friend Shinobu (Ryo Narita), a group of older women who were close friends with her mother, and last but not least, her father – all of them are written as kind, supportive people who are always on the lookout for Suzu’s well-being.
This cast of eccentric human characters echo another sentiment Hosoda wishes to convey in his film: it’s easy to disappear into the Internet and find connection there, but often times the people who care about you the most are right there in front of you in the real world.
This emotional heart is what gives Belle its substance, making it strong and stable enough to rival its bombastic style, because the animation and music cannot be praised enough. Images of Belle performing on top of a humpback whale, whose barnacles are actually music speakers, will resonate and stay in your mind long after the film is over. Though I still don’t know too much about the inner workings of “U” and what its limitations are as a virtual world, it is undoubtedly a world I can imagine myself wanting to escape to.
Though the Beauty and the Beast part of the script can feel a bit rushed and misplaced in the film’s kaleidoscope of ideas and plot choices, the execution of famous beats like the ballroom dance is unmistakably beautiful. The songs do a massive amount of emotional heavy lifting in Belle, more than enough to offer a different take on the tale as old as time but still familiar enough to resonate with audiences.
Thankfully, much of Belle’s magic and charm comes from Hosoda’s storytelling sensibilities. The film itself may be juggling too many ideas, in a runtime that at times feels overlong and at other times too densely packed, but every single idea comes with good intentions, beautiful animation, and plenty of heart. Sometimes all you need is two characters who have never met each other in real life feeling like they are being seen and understood. Sometimes it’s the simplest things – animation and music – that sells those emotions the best. If you let Hosoda take you on his weird, colorful journey, Belle will make your heart sing at the moments that count.
This review is from the New York Film Festival. GKIDS will release Belle in theaters in the U.S. later this year.