Belle explodes onto the screen with a bombastic concert in a virtual world. Known simply as U, it’s the ultimate virtual community where users can become entirely different from their dull real-life counterparts. Among them is one singer that has captured the love and adoration of billions. As the starlet Belle begins belting out her opening number, center stage on the back of a giant whale, it’s easy to be swept into this vibrant world. Thankfully, Belle has enough substance to back up this spectacle.
The crux of writer/director Mamoru Hosoda’s latest film is a reimagined Beauty and the Beast mixed with teenage adversity in a digital wonderland. It’s a potpourri of hormones, misunderstandings and animation styles that recall his 2009 breakthrough Summer Wars. Belle even relies on the family dynamics seen in some of his later movies—like the lone outcast Ren in 2015’s The Boy and the Beast or the wolf siblings in 2012’s Wolf Children. Hosoda’s children have always had to endure great tragedies. It’s within this combination of family struggles and virtual reality that Belle finds its groove.
Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a 17-year-old high school student who lives in the countryside with her father (Koji Yakusho). Although a few years have passed since the death of her mother, Suzu is still traumatized. She’s shut out the world around her, her despair sapping her of her joy and love of singing. Her relationship with her father is nonexistent, and she’s a certifiable pariah at school.
Luckily, there are still friends who support Suzu even as she feels lost in the world around her. Suzu’s friends fit into easily defined character types; there’s the attractive childhood friend Shinobu Hisatake (Ryô Narita), the most popular girl in school Ruka Watanabe (Tina Tamashiro), the goofy captain of the rowing club Shinjiro Chikami (Shôta Sometani), and her computer genius best friend Hiroka Betsuyaku (Lilas Ikuta). With a push from Hiroka, Suzu takes the plunge and joins the world of U. This new world—free of the pressures of reality—allows Suzu to pursue singing once again. That’s until trouble arises in the form of a violent avatar known as “The Dragon.”
One of the greatest gifts that U gives its users, is the ability to become someone else. That makes the ultimate penalty an “Unveiling” which reveals your real identity to the virtual world. This unveiling is what The Dragon is running from as a group of vigilantes starts to retaliate for its disruptive behavior. But who could this Dragon be? Not only are the in-world denizens trying to reveal its identity, but countless others around the world have become fascinated by this mystery. Belle believes that she has the power to reach The Dragon.
Belle’s most spellbinding sequences come from inside the virtual world of U. Colorful 3D figures float through a kaleidoscope of colors and towering structures. The biggest setpieces in the movie take place here: An epic concert for billions of eager spectators, a battle through a castle—these are only a few of the memorable sights and sounds of U. The virtual world filled with bubbly avatars exists in stark contrast to the traditional 2D characters of the real world. Suzu fits in neatly with her peers, never really standing out except for some freckles she has on her face. Typically, the leads would have some kind of brightly colored hair or unique attire that would make them pop among their peers. But Suzu’s friends and family have similarly run-of-the-mill attributes and it results in an interesting dichotomy between the two realities that shows off the limitless world of U.
Those aforementioned setpieces wouldn’t be as astounding without the contributions of Nakamura. Collaborating with Hosoda on select tracks for lyrics and composer Ludvig Forssell (best known for his work with videogame director Hideo Kojima on Death Stranding and Metal Gear Solid V), Belle’s musical team creates stirring songs that function as Belle’s backbone. To get an idea of what it sounds like, Nakamura’s contributions are like a mixture of rap and pop that becomes an instant earworm like on the opening title, “U.” The song brings in a wild rhythm while Nakamura races to keep up with the beat. It’s the perfect introduction to this futuristic virtual world. Other songs, like the ballad “Lend Me Your Voice” and the soaring anthem “A Million Miles Away,” are more traditional pieces that build up to crescendos that will have your hairs standing on end. All the songs in Belle are reaching for the same purpose: Unlocking your heart and opening up to the world around you. The concert sequences themselves have a lot in common with the classic anime series Macross, where the songstress has the great power to bring people together through song. Massive concert venues where the audience is limitless and the only place to hide is behind an avatar.
If there is one issue, it’s that Belle contains too many subplots and ancillary characters. In addition to the aforementioned dilemmas, Belle also touches upon romance, abuse and the consequences of hiding behind a mask. While pieces of these elements work wonderfully—a chance meeting at a train station, an online concert for the ages—some of it comes across as too fantastical and dangerous. For all the bright and colorful vistas, there’s jarring darkness within Belle’s story. In one instance, Suzu’s concerned with a teenage crush, then immediately confronting a tragedy outside of her control. Characters make decisions based solely on instinct, putting them in potentially deadly circumstances, leading up to a bridge-too-far finale that can feel unsatisfactory.
Belle is Hosoda’s best animated feature since Summer Wars. Not only is it an intriguing retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it’s also a moving story about overcoming grief and seeking help when everything seems lost. Though it tackles a little too much, Belle is a triumph. It will have you believe that no matter which world you’re in, there is still hope.
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Writer: Mamoru Hosoda
Starring: Kaho Nakamura, Takeru Satoh, Ryô Narita, Lilas Ikuta, Shôta Sometani, Tina Tamashiro
Release Date: January 14, 2022
Max Covill has written for Fandom, Polygon, Film School Rejects, Playboy, SYFY and many others since 2011. He is also the co-host of @itsthepicpod. You can find him on Twitter @mhcovill discussing all things movies, videogames and anime.