I have been looking forward to seeing Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle ever since I’ve heard of its reception at the Cannes Film Festival. And I was not disappointed. I’ve heard the story, most often described as a modern-day retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but that only gives a bare outline of the story.
It’s much more than that – and unlike many modern stories about social media, the view Hosoda takes is a very positive one. The world of U allows people to start over again and the technology it uses brings out a person’s greatest strengths.
It’s a breathtakingly beautiful movie about loss, loneliness, mourning as well as about strength, identity, and bravery. It’s a hard movie to describe…it’s a film that needs to be experienced. And if you feel safe and take the right precautions, it is a film that is absolutely worth seeing on the big screen for the visuals alone.
I want to watch this film over and over again, just to soak in every single little detail of this world. I want to watch the dubbed version, I want to hear Belle’s songs in every single language I can.
I want to feel that sense of awe and wonder I had watching it for the first time on Friday night.
Belle is about a high schooler named Suzu. She is plain, awkward, quiet, and has few friends. She’s been that way since her mom died saving a little girl — and Suzu also gave up on her passion for music. That is until she joins the social media/metaverse/alternate reality of U as Bell. (The name being the English translation of her name.)
With her slender body, pink hair, and freckles – she becomes a musical sensation and one of the biggest celebrities in the world. People begin to call her “Belle,” meaning beautiful in French.
When a dragon avatar known as the Beast interrupts one of her concerts, Suzu finds herself intrigued and begins a hunt to find out who he is. Along the way, she finds herself.
I cannot talk about the themes of this movie without spoiling important aspects like the Dragon’s identity. But a huge theme of the film is secrets and how we present ourselves online. Because the technology of “U” bases the user’s avatar on their biometric information, there are always hints about who the person is.
During Suzu’s search for the Dragon, she and her friend come across plenty of potential suspects – but while they do have their secrets, they’re not the Dragon.
And being a story about social media, there is definitely a theme of how the internet can actually bring people together. Love, not necessarily romantic love, is the drive for most of the characters in the film: love of music, of people, of strangers….It’s impressive.
Let’s start with the obvious – the visuals. There is a shift in art and animation styles depending on which world the characters are in. The world of U is otherworldly, fantastical, full of all sorts of creatures and beings who float around, rather than walk. When Belle sings, she is surrounded by a wisp of lyrics in multiple languages.
And the “real” world is a beautiful but dying countryside, where Suzu has to take a bus (whose route will soon be discontinued), a train and a long walk just to get to school. We see her routine many times throughout the movie, emphasizing the mundane.
I watched the Japanese version, but everything I’ve heard about the English dub has been positive. I can’t wait to see it and hear Kylie McNeill. I’ve watched some clips and it is clear this girl has some major talent.
In both cases, Belle’s singing is plaintive, haunting, and beautiful. The music isn’t as thematically weaved throughout the story as it is in Ride Your Wave, but it fits in wonderfully. You can understand why people in-universe are drawn to her.
The Beast’s story is an interesting take – and while he and Belle don’t necessarily have a romantic arc, their story is still a love story. Suzu drops everything to save the Beast in the real world, having made the connection between the avatar and user.
And I appreciate that — I like non-traditional love stories and what Suzu is seeking isn’t romance, but understanding; somebody who understands her and her grief. To understand why somebody would risk their own life for a virtual stranger.
Does it get sappy at times?
Yeah, of course. But that doesn’t ruin any of the fun.
Is there anything truly bad about Hosoda’s Belle? There’s an unnecessary plotline here and there, that don’t really contribute to the greater plot (like the social structure at the school falling apart after an interaction between Suzu and her childhood friend Shinobu, that gets resolved quickly) but they’re not distracting.
The pacing isn’t perfect.
And to be honest, this is more of a personal pet peeve – but why does it feel like every modern-day anime movie has some tragic death in it? Yes, Suzu’s mother’s death is relevant thematically and plotwise but I’m just tired of these extraordinarily tragic deaths.
But that’s personal. It doesn’t ruin the film in the least bit.
Belle is easily going to be one of the best movies of 2022 – I’m calling it now. The animation, story, themes, character…really everything is absolutely breathtaking. This movie may just be Hosoda’s magnum opus, his absolute best film.
But I’m excited to see where he goes from here.
I highly recommend this film.
And that’s the scoop.
Year of release: 2021
Length: 124 minutes
Director/Writer: Mamoru Hosoda
Producers: Nozomu Takahashi, Yuichiro Saito, Toshimi Tanio, Genki Kawamura