Film Review – Belle
The Japanese film Belle (2021) exemplifies how animation can be utilized to transport us into fantasy worlds. Because we are fully aware that those are not real people or places shown on screen, we’re given more flexibility to accept what we see and immerse ourselves deeper into the narrative. Writer/director Mamoru Hosoda’s latest effort is a blast of creative energy. It’s a confetti-filled concoction of traditional hand drawings and seamless computer-generated imagery. The result is not only a feast for the eyes, but an involving coming-of-age tale. It looks otherworldly but its themes are universal. The best movies are the ones that show us things we’ve never seen yet connect with us on an emotional level. That’s precisely what Hosoda does here.
One of his impressive feats is how he creates a unique world but never lets us get lost amongst the details. He introduces the concept of a social media network called “U,” where people can create avatars and exist within the mainframe like a living, breathing entity. Everyone of any age can enter U as anything they wish to be – whether it is a monster dressed in knight’s armor, cute little furry animals, or giant whales. They all interact within a landscape of upside-down cities, digital arenas, and painterly canvasses. Whatever a person can conjure up in their minds is a possibility. Hosoda ignores explaining how all this works, which is for the better. The vast array of avatars and pastel environments makes U feel more like a fantasy realm as opposed to a Matrix-like computer prison.
Our protagonist is Suzu (Kaho Nakamura), a shy and timid high school girl. Suzu uses U to express herself, to escape the pressures of being a young person and the traumas she experienced in her past. Suzu’s avatar is “Belle,” a pink-haired siren whose captivating voice has made her an internet sensation. The editing includes a montage of text messages of people all clamoring over Belle’s incredible singing. How Suzu translates her own voice to Belle is one of those questions Hosoda decides not to answer. Suzu/Belle’s state of internet bliss is disrupted with the appearance of a fearsome avatar known as “The Dragon.” With his long snout, horns, and bruised-covered cape, The Dragon strikes fear upon the citizens of U, all of whom question what kind of person would create such a frightening beast. Much of the tension involves Belle’s search for The Dragon’s real-world identity.
The writing and direction do not shy away from the fact that it draws inspiration from the Beauty and the Beast fairytale, specifically from the 1991 Walt Disney animated film. We have a female character named “Belle” who develops a connection with a “Beast” who just happens to live in an enchanted castle with servants – the parallels are not exactly understated. Keen observers will notice visual elements Hosoda translates here, such as the importance of a “red rose” or in the way Belle and The Dragon converse in the halls of his castle. Seeing the two dancing in a ballroom is about as obvious as you can get. And yet, Hosoda molds these elements with enough originality to make them stand on their own. Much of the story feature characters accepting others for who they really are and not tying themselves to their online facades. Social media often has us depicting an inflated version of ourselves upon others, and it’s that insight that makes the “Beauty and the Beast” comparison so apt.
Hosoda and his team distinguishes Suzu’s real life world and U with clarity. When Suzu is at school or at home, the animation has a traditional, low-key, hand drawn approach. Once Suzu becomes Belle and enters U, the visuals explode. Hand drawn animation is supplemented with CGI to create a three-dimensional space. When Belle performs one of her hit songs for the masses, her costumes and dresses shimmer like diamonds while the adoring fans stretch out into the horizon. The camera frame is not stuck in place like other animated films, but it moves and twirls and follows the action like an omniscient participant. When The Beast does battle with online authorities trying to take him down, the camera pivots and spins with every attack. The textures highlight how easy it is for a person to become addicted living within U.
But that’s not to say Suzu’s real life doesn’t have anything to offer. In fact, the cleverness of the writing shows how the tangible world is more vital and important than the one on our computers or phones. The character development works well on this side. The supporting players steal many of the scenes. Suzu’s best friend Ruka (Tina Tamashiro) speaks with an honesty that might be too blunt for many to handle. Her tech expertise is called upon when Suzu goes searching for The Dragon, with her computer setup looking like a full-blown command center. There’s also Shinobu (Ryô Narita) a fellow classmate whose spastic mannerism make him hilariously endearing. Shinobu’s feeble attempts to woo his high school crush make for some of the funniest moments.
Belle is the kind of movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. It goes for big, sweeping emotional highs, maybe to the point of detriment. There were instances that felt a bit too sentimental, threatening on the bad side of melodramatic. When you have a movie that argues that the problems of the world can be solved with a beautifully performed song, you must be really invested to buy into that idea. But even with that said, Belle is still a beautifully crafted piece of art. It’s a story of acceptance, inclusion, and the joy of human connection. I liked this one a lot.