The eagerly awaited follow-up to the highly acclaimed Japanese animated feature Mirai, Mamoru Hosoda’s latest Belle is a cleverly conceived updated adaptation of the classic Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont novel The Beauty and the Beast, which contains highly impressive animation techniques and resonant social commentary on the modern digital world. As time passes, the film has a strong chance of reaching a wider audience, particularly among anime fans and cinephiles.
Working again as a solo writer, the modern retelling of The Beauty and the Beast is a transcendent reworking, as well as compelling tribute to human dignity that also lies in ideas rather than just stellar animated techniques. Of course, Belle dazzles with its animation, its characters are modernized, and many of the tropes are based on the classic beloved saga.
Horoda’s follows a young, shy teenage girl named Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakumura), who ends up finding community and confidence on a virtual reality social media platform named U. Through her avatar, she transforms herself into a beautiful singer named Belle, where in this world she can actually sing extremely well and get far more attention than she would in the real world. While these ideas aren’t the freshest in its commentary on internet addiction and culture, the film reels you in with vibrant colors, stellar set-pieces, and an involving narrative that becomes an engaging coming-of-age story.
When Suzu lives in the natural world, she doesn’t have too many friends, and a lot of her classmates don’t pay too much attention to her. Her best and only friend is Hiro (voiced by Ikura), who tries to encourage her to open up to others more. Suzu is also traumatized because her mother died attempting to save a drowning child from a river. Due to this, Suzu, approaching 18 years old, doesn’t have the confidence to sing in public and she’s also disconnected from her father. When she goes to the U, she is able to become a pop star and perform her original songs with a huge fanbase.
It’s a virtual world where many stay anonymous and play a role with their avatar. Each avatar is mostly empowering and is created with each user’s physiological characteristics via biometrics. Using the looks of a fellow classmate named Roku (voiced by Tina Tamashiro), while merging Suzu’s personality and talents into Roku’s looks, makes her an internet sensation. Others become superheroes, while others become younger and more athletic.
The narrative eventually kicks in the Beauty and the Beast tropes and references, especially once Suzu’s fame rises and is disrupted by a bruised, caped beast named The Dragon (voiced by Takeru Satoh). However, it is only revealed that the Dragon is constantly on the defensive against others, and many misinterpret his presence and frequently gang up on him due to fear. Even by the virtual reality authorities that go by the Justices, who are really just bullies.
The film ends up becoming a journey for Suzu as she goes on a long search looking for the real identity of the Dragon avatar. There are many suspects that include a tattoo artist and a baseball player, but she begins to sense that it’s probably somebody closer to her own age, if not younger. She can sense that the Dragon also holds some inner torment and Suzu/Belle becomes fascinated with him and senses his pain, which opens some deep wounds beneath the surface that end up becoming very poignant.
The film’s first hour is quite innovative in its world-building of the virtual world as it plays with the conventions of the classic story. Thereafter, as Suzu’s story becomes more of a celebration of technology rather than just condemning it, Hosoda explores how people’s insecurities are drawn to the virtual world, where they feel empowered, and if anything, it brings these souls closer together. Not to say that the film doesn’t come with some cynicism, but it’s not exactly a routine cautionary tale about the dangers of technology either. Ultimately, reality and the virtual world collide, just as they do in real life. How Hosoda examines these worlds and how they coexist makes his wisdom of human longing even more deeply moving. All around, Belle is a memorable animation film that offers high artistry and earned poignancy.