Film Review: “Belle”

Despite a convoluted synopsis, technological fantasy anime “Belle” succeeds as a magnificently animated film with a unique spin on the classic “Beauty and the Beast.”

In the musical anime “Belle,” Mamoru Hosoda builds a “Beauty and the Beast” adaptation through a whimsical melding of technological, natural, and fantasy elements. When awkward and introverted high schooler, Suzu, signs up for online platform “U” to escape the way her classmates perceive her, her life is dramatically changed as she becomes the beautiful, overnight pop sensation Bell. However, a mysterious beast named Dragon interrupts one of her virtual performances and Bell embarks on a journey to help this brooding avatar escape the vigilantes clamoring to unmask his true identity.

What can one more retelling have to add to a tale as old as time? Technology. As soon as the film begins, U is introduced. The explanation of this world feels almost superfluous — a modern audience will have no problem understanding a virtual integration platform, because this setting has been presented time and time again with only slight variations. Nearly as derivative as a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling is the storyline where an online platform overtakes the world’s attention, tempting the everyday citizen to sign-up with promises of who they can be and what they can do. “Belle” adds little to this familiar plot, barely even touching on the logistics of U or how its existence has affected society at large. Instead, the filmmakers focus on imagery. Even if the idea of an online platform is hackneyed, the animation of this one is magnificent. The world is colorful, dynamic, carefully constructed, and filled with clean, vibrant details. U’s incredible animation is visible from the first scenes of this film, when Bell rides into frame on a whale saddled with hundreds of speakers, singing a musical number with a voice as ethereal as the pretty animation surrounding it.

The other half of this character, the quiet teenager Suzu, lives a simple life constantly overlooked by her classmates. She faces real problems in painfully awkward and relatable ways. Depending on whether she is in or out of U, Suzu is a completely different person, and the animation reflects this change. When grounded in reality, shots are created with less defined strokes, closer to a painting than a perfect computer image. Scenes of nature and slower city streets are particularly idyllic, and they show a stark contradiction to the carefully constructed, constantly stimulating U. Despite the variation in settings, which range from online panoramic landscapes to otherworldly castles to picturesque rivers, what connects these two worlds is the beauty captured within them. Both worlds are gorgeous, but “Belle” suffers in the development of its setting and plot. The world-building is brushed over, which is a shame. Based on what we did get to see, U could have been an even more fantastically full, flourishing environment.

As sparkling as the setting is, “Belle” relies just as much on the characters within the story. Suzu’s friends in the real world are some of the best parts of this film, even though they do not exist within the flashy U. Specifically, popular girl Ruka, childhood friend Shinobu, and tech best friend Hiroka work well because they have hobbies, interests, and personalities. The people that exist within U, on the other hand, have detailed character designs but are unable to exert their personality through dialogue. One of the main flaws of this film is that the virtual avatar Dragon is not allowed enough screen time to explore the complexities of his character. The “Beauty and the Beast” structure works effectively within “Belle” because its romanticism matches the film’s tone, but the beast is underwhelming. His mystifying, dark nature offers a solid foundation for dramatic and full character-building, but he is barely offered the chance to progress past the brooding antihero. Instead, most of the runtime is concerned with building Suzu and Bell’s personalities. Luckily, she is the most effective part of this film. Bell’s voice is equally exquisite in Japanese and English, her character design is stunning, and most importantly, she radiates heart as both her online avatar and real life personality. “Belle” is a film that draws crowds in by being larger than life, but will keep their attention through the groundedness of its characters.

Grade: B
Directed by: Maromu Hosoda
Starring: Kaho Nakamura, Takeru Satoh
Release Date: Jan. 16, 2022
Rated: PG

Image courtesy of The New York Times.