Despite minor narrative faults, Mamoru Hosada’s Belle is a charming and beautifully animated sci-fi/fantasy romp about identity. It isn’t as touching or up to par with Wolf Children or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, but it does have some dazzling moments.
Most animated-film directors, at least in today’s age, shift their focus to the animation only and not so much on the story that comes with it. Since they aren’t channelling their efforts to the spiel the way they do with the animation, their narratives are mostly generic and unimaginative. However, directors like Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke), Isao Takahata (Grave of Fireflies), and Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress) showed us how brilliant animation could be with some of the most visionary, insightful, and soul-stirring pieces imaginable. Although Pixar dominates the mainstream media of animation, animators like Makoto Shinkai, Naoko Yamada, and Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart still do great movies that show the vast scale that the genre offers. Another one of those types of animators that is on that same boat is Mamoru Hosada.
Hosada’s best work, Wolf Children (2012), The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), and Mirai (2018), all deal with the aspect of identity with a sci-fi fantasy element attached to it so there could be a more innovative way to tell a story which could be simplistic in its core. His latest work, Belle, follows that same strategy, but it is intertwined with a musical touch and centers itself in a more technological atmosphere.
The film is about a shy high school student, Suzu (Kaho Nakamura), who lives in a rural village and feels like she has been a shadow of herself since a certain incident turned her life upside down. So, one day, she decides to enter the “U”, a massive virtual plane that has over five billion users and offers a boundless crevasse of everything one could imagine, starting by generating your own avatar that brings a person’s inner strengths when signing into the cyber world.
When Suzu enters the “U”, she finds an escape from reality with her online persona Belle, a pink-haired cherished chanteuse with the voice of an angel. As she sings her songs, mostly done as a coping mechanism, she starts to get noticed quickly, making her songs go viral and have a grand following. However, one day, one of her shows is interrupted by a beast. The vigilantes of the “U” start searching for Belle; meanwhile, she is on a stirring venture to unveil the identity of this beast. It’s a retelling of the classic tale of “Beauty and the Beast”, which seems like a story on Hosada’s alley, given the themes of his previous films. Yet, as previously mentioned, it’s not going to have the same setting nor the one you would expect; that’s where the cyberlife guise comes from–a world within a world, a place where one could be anything and do everything.
That’s Belle’s central leitmotif: one’s own self-discovery and how to connect via a place where people show their true selves via an avatar or another identity. The film’s best elements are its animation, of course, and how it maneuvers between Suzu’s real life and online persona. Suzu finds it hard to hold on to her secret online persona that the other members of the “U” treasure while also dealing with the anxieties of being an adolescent in real life. Simultaneously, it takes steps into more fully-fledged themes like grief, seclusion, and even child abuse. It may sound like these themes are too strong to be in a kid’s picture, but Hosada sustains the elements from the old tale with new tinkerings to make it effective and not feel darkened tone-wise. Unfortunately, even though these elements work in full, the film contains some narrative plot holes and an unnecessarily extended runtime that hurts the movie occasionally. For what it wants to say, it’s a way longer picture than it needs to be.
This extended runtime might be warranted due to the exposition and elucidation Hosada needs to show the audience regarding the “U” and Suzu’s film from the beginning until where she is now. In addition, there are a few sequences in both realms that overstay their welcome and could have cut to the chase instead of meandering on certain melodramatic situations. The second issue is that the story is on and off hard to follow. It’s easy to pick up the “Beauty and the Beast” part of it; the hitch comes from the modernization of the tale and how it is approached. There are many ways this could have been crafted to make sure every beat is in perfect tuning, starting by cutting several minutes off, yet other than that, Hosada has a charming movie in his hand.
From alluring animation that includes a blue whale with speakers covering its body to various catchy pop tracks, Belle has enough enticement on its back to make it a compelling viewing.