What They Say:
From the celebrated Academy Award®-nominated director Mamoru Hosoda and Studio Chizu, creators of Mirai, Wolf Children, Summer Wars, and more, comes a fantastical, heartfelt story of growing up in the age of social media.
Suzu is a shy, everyday high school student living in a rural village. For years, she has only been a shadow of herself. But when she enters “U”, a massive virtual world, she escapes into her online persona as Belle, a gorgeous and globally-beloved singer. One day, her concert is interrupted by a monstrous creature chased by vigilantes. As their hunt escalates, Suzu embarks on an emotional and epic quest to uncover the identity of this mysterious “beast” and to discover her true self in a world where you can be anyone.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Though I may be overthinking this a little, I’ve wondered to myself how much longer Mamoru Hosoda can make whimsical fantasies that revolve around social media and the internet at large. I know he loves the internet. From watching his films, I sense he imagines that the world would be a better place if the internet housed a massive metaverse society. For the longest time I’m sure that was a noble goal. For years I believe we all looked at the idea of a metaverse where we could be someone different from who we are in real life and we saw that as nothing short of a good thing (and likely incredibly fun to boot). The idea though is…starting to lose its charm. With leaked documents about the ill effects social media has on children (not to mention the rise of extremism politics) and I can’t help but feel the timing behind “Belle” is a little unfortunate. I think the world’s love affair with the idea of a metaverse has been severely tainted knowing what we know now.
It is to Hosoda’s credit then that “Belle” is as wonderful as it is despite the unintended baggage I suspect has been foisted upon it. It still believes that the internet is nothing but a force for good, in which a lonely teenager can create an online persona that becomes a viral, musical sensation that can instantly be monetized. Course we are becoming more aware of the negative effects being on Facebook has on one’s mental health, but maybe in Hosoda’s world we can put all that aside and enjoy what is essentially a modern re-telling of Disney’s “Beauty & the Beast?” In fact, that may be an appropriate launching point, because even though the “Beauty & the Beast” story is in the public domain and anyone is allowed to make a movie on the source material, as I watched “Belle” the influences the Disney version of the story had on Hosoda is very obvious.
From the design of the castle to the motions of the Beast…why, there’s even a ballroom scene that is cleared inspired by the iconic Disney film (yet manages to be beautiful in its own unique way). While in some ways it seems weird to mention these things before the core story, I found it to be fascinating to watch as anime fans tend to make claims that Disney doesn’t influence Japanese art because why would it? Japan makes shows anime fans love and those fans sometimes feel like they don’t need Disney films. Yet much like Disney (allegedly) took inspiration from “Kimba the White Lion” to make “The Lion King,” the inspiration Disney’s Beauty & the Beast” had on “Belle” is too obvious to ignore. Still, for Hosoda the ‘tale as old as time’ is anecdotal to the core story, which involves a young girl named Suzu, who takes on the Belle persona in the digital metaverse known only as U.
In this metaverse she can be visually creative, popular, and sing songs that result in lots of monetary success (though her friend decides to send the money to charity). This is in stark contrast to how she behaves in real life, where she is quiet, shy, and dealing with the trauma of her dead mother many years after the fact. It is here – I fear – where “Belle” has some challenges to overcome. We sympathize early on with Suzu’s desire to live in a virtual world, where she can become a Lady Gaga for the digital world. The problem is the movie doesn’t seem to find any problem with this. Any problem in the real world can be put off in U, and while current events obviously couldn’t be factored into the overall conflict when the movie was being made, they nonetheless can’t be shaken.
Maybe Suzu would be better off going to therapy to deal with her trauma as opposed to a metaverse where she basically creates a new persona? Does Suzu see her life in U as her “real life” while her life outside of U is basically slow torture? I sense this is the case, seeing as how the story inside U is more enchanting and colorful in comparison to the drab scenery of the outside world. These are complicated questions that the movie doesn’t have time for…or, at least, not our main character. I say this because, despite everything I said, the movie DOES come together in the end to produce a finale that does take some of these questions I had and applied them to other characters in the film!
I don’t want to say who for fear of spoiling key things, but at one point it’s clear that while the fantasy world of U is an escape from struggles of real life, it is only a temporary escape, and problems must eventually be dealt with. While the turnaround came late into the game, “Belle” pulled itself out from being the most beautiful train wreck I’ve seen to something of a miracle; a film that did, in fact, DID have a lot to say about the depression and how we use social media as an escape for problems that really should be dealt with! Not to the extent that it probably should have, but maybe Hosoda can take recent controversies with Facebook and Twitter and make a movie where the fantasy of the metaverse is looked upon with a more critical eye. Regardless of how the movie may or may not handle such sensitive material, one thing that is consistent is that the animation is breathtaking.
This is easily the best-looking film Hosoda has directed, and it was very wise of him to have the real world being animated with hand-drawn animation while the world inside U is made up of CGI images that are recreating 2D characters. This gives the world in U a look that is imitating the “real world” but still managing to look fake, and if future animation teachers need an example of how to create visual representations of ‘reality vs. fantasy’ to future students, I have no doubt “Belle” will be required viewing in those classrooms. This is also Hosoda’s first film in IMAX, and he takes huge advantage of the giant screen to create the most detailed metaverse you could possibly imagine, and it really blew me away with how overwhelming everything was. America was only supposed to get a special ‘One Night Event’ for IMAX screenings, however, some film delays means that “Belle” will have an expanded presence on IMAX screens in both dubbed and subtitled formats, and whatever your preference is I suggest you take advantage and see it there!
“Belle” is not Hosoda’s best film. Part of that may be a personal concern I have about social media being presented in a positive light these days, but even with those concerns turning me into a bit of a grump there is no denying that “Belle” is an overall stunning achievement! Rather than focusing on what personally irks me, I’m going to instead emphasize the scope, the beauty, the magic, and the sheer ambition of this film! “Belle” is Mamoru Hosoda stretching his limits as a filmmaker and he mostly succeeds! Considering we are in the dead of January and Oscar hopefuls have not been re-released yet, it seems downright silly (pandemic aside) to not make a trip to the theater to see it. You won’t see many films like it, and in some ways, this may be his most accessible film since “The Girl who Leapt Through Time!”