Belle debuts in theaters on Jan. 14.
Academy Award-nominated Japanese director and animator Mamoru Hosoda is responsible for some deeply touching anime films: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children are widely considered to be some of his best, as is his work with the Digimon franchise. Hosoda returns with his ninth feature film, Belle, an interpretation of the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast. Its heart is in the right place, and it is stunningly animated, but its message is dragged down a bit by some plot holes and a bloated runtime.
Belle follows 17-year-old Suzu Naito (Kylie McNeill), who lost her mother at a young age in an accident. As a result, the already modest and shy teen has found it difficult to relate to others and has become withdrawn, having lost her ability to sing in front of others the way she used to.
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Everything changes when Suzu reluctantly joins the virtual world of “U”, a metaverse-like online community of over 5 million users, in which you can “start over” as a new person. When logging in for the first time, U generates a jaw-droppingly beautiful pink-haired avatar for her that she can hardly believe is her. She nicknames the avatar “Bell,” which is the English meaning of her name. As Bell, she finds she can share her beautiful singing voice with the world, and as she rapidly gains popularity, she finds that internet fame is wrought with both thrilling ups and devastating downs.
Enlisting the help of her friend Hiro Betsuyaku (Jessica DiCicco), Suzu eases into her newfound popularity and begins putting on concerts while watching her alias blossom into a beloved figure in the online community. Her fans begin to refer to her as “Belle” with an E, a reference to the word that means “beautiful” in French.
When a devastating dragon-like avatar nicknamed The Beast crashes one of Belle’s hotly anticipated concerts, a group of vigilantes called the Justices, led by an avatar named Justin (Chace Crawford), accuses The Beast of inciting violence in the otherwise peaceful world of U. Belle, however, is intrigued by The Beast and goes out of her way to understand his actions, eventually befriending the misunderstood user. From there, she’s led on a wild ride through the real and digital world in an effort to find the “real” Beast as well as a way to reach through to him and his dark demeanor.
Obviously, it’s a Beauty and the Beast for the digital age with absolutely mind-blowingly beautiful animation, with a blend of more traditional aesthetics and CG inside of U, much like we saw in Hosoda’s Summer Wars. However, as pretty as it is, it seems half-baked in more than a few areas.
Belle seems conflicted as to what kind of story it truly wants to be: a romance like the original fairy tale based on loving oneself, not judging a book by its cover, and being kind to others, or an action tale where there’s a villain for the sake of having a villain, but no real conflict beyond Suzu briefly clashing with the Justices, learning The Beast’s identity, and the consequences that come with it in real life.
And for a story that clearly wants to be a musical spectacular, most of the songs, with the exception of the effervescent “U” at the film’s opening, are syrupy ballads with no real draw. They’re beautifully sung, and even analogous to the Japanese voice cast’s singing chops, but they don’t feel particularly memorable or important to the moments they’re attached to.
That’s not to say the entire adventure is disappointing. There are a few satisfying high points, mostly in the way that the movie handles some of its lesser characters. In fact, many of Belle’s triumphs come in the form of surprising friendships and interactions. Suzu’s unexpected bond with her beautiful and popular schoolmate Ruka Watanabe (Hunter Schafer) bucks convention entirely. It demonstrates to us that there’s still very much room, even in a “mousy” girl’s life, for meaningful friendships when she begins to realize that she is worthy of others’ time and puts herself out there.
There are some other truly heartfelt moments that arise as Belle begins to coast toward its ending. The manner in which The Beast’s true identity is eventually revealed may be difficult to watch, but it also manages to subvert expectations in that it both shines light on a harrowing real-life subject and feels like a more realistic alias reveal than what we typically see in anime series and films. If you’re expecting feelings to blossom between certain characters that eventually culminates in a kiss at the end of the movie, you’ll definitely come away from the experience satisfied with the direction the film ultimately went in.
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Unfortunately, these bright points alone can’t carry the film in its entirety. Though it works hard to endear Suzu and Belle to us, there’s little in the way of reasons to care about her the way Hosoda clearly intended. Suzu has a troubled past, and dealing with her mother’s death has been hard on her. Still, it’s insinuated that she’s well-liked by her peers, has a clearly supportive father, and a plucky-but-determined best friend, and a childhood crush who wants to be more. Still, she spends all her time crying and scurrying away from her problems.
And one day, she simply stops. That’s where the issues lie. The “transformation” into Belle is so quick and without substance that we don’t really see Suzu’s growth into this larger-than-life digital figure. Instead, we see her standing in U from the film’s very beginning, singing her heart out as this gorgeous, pink-haired siren with millions of eyes on her, with virtually no interaction with the avatars who flock to her flashy concerts. And we’re left with so many unanswered questions in the end. Why is Belle so popular? Where did the songs she sings come from? Does she interact with fans? Who sets up the beautiful visuals in U? Did she really see no income from the music she created and shared with the world since Hiro routed all of her earnings to charity? The list goes on.
Belle’s message is obvious: Suzu’s digital avatar has given her the courage she needed to sing again and to be herself, to bring the light back into her life that’s been missing since she lost her mother. As Belle, she can share the kindness in her heart with others, even if she has to do it in a virtual world at first. The film just doesn’t try hard enough to fill in the blanks from Suzu’s initial foray into U or how she realizes she can use her talent to touch lives. It mostly fails to illustrate how Suzu learned the lessons she did along the way or why it was important to apply them beyond reaching out to the much-maligned Beast.
As a result, Belle as a digital pop star and the lives she touches through her music is believable, but the entire song and dance feels more hollow than meaningful.