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‘Belle’ Review: A Feminist Beauty and the Beast Fable for the Digital Era

Anime master Mamoru Hosoda imagines another forward-thinking virtual world, “U,” using it as the backdrop for an empowering musical fairy-tale.

Belle
Courtesy of GKIDS

With “Belle,” anime master Mamoru Hosoda has reimagined “Beauty and the Beast” for the metaverse set — that young generation of social media users who switch identities comfortably between the physical world and a more inviting online one.

Roughly half the movie takes place in the “real world” (which is to say, a traditional cartoon rendering of modern-day Japan, where hand-drawn teenagers worry about who’s popular at school and how to get noticed by the classmates they find cute), while the fairy-tale portion is set on an ultra-popular virtual platform called “U,” where the main character appears as a slender pink Disney princess type: Belle.

In U, members assume an alternate identity/avatar (or “AS”) that allows them to more fully express certain dimensions of their personalities. Here, Hosoda appears to have tapped into a central anxiety of modern adolescence: the concern that others could never truly know or accept all of one’s nuances and contradictions, just as in nearly every telling of this classic story, only Belle can see the goodness in the Beast.

For more than 20 years, Hosoda has been refining a vision of the way that virtual realms extend, enhance and complicate modern life — from the Digital Realm depicted in his two “Digimon Adventure” movies to the stark white Oz of “Summer Wars.” Visually complex as those iterations were, nothing compares to U, as Hosoda packs an Imax-worthy level of detail into his depiction of a vast parallel world/playground, which looks like a cross between a noir-and-neon “Matrix”-like megacity and a dust mote’s view of a PC motherboard, where chips loom like skyscrapers in the background.

Populated by some 5 billion registered users, U promises that once people have plugged into their devices, pesky restrictions such as gravity need not apply, and everyone is free to be themselves. (Fine, but what do people actually do in U? The concept suggests more questions than it can answer, relying on a “don’t ask, just go with it” style of storytelling.)

Before joining U, Suzu is a relatively introverted high school student. Much is made of the fact she has freckles, which become a defining aspect of her AS — a row of bright fuchsia triangles imprinted across her cheeks, like some kind of trend-setting makeup. Shy and emotionally scarred from the loss of her mother several years earlier, Suzu lives way out in the sticks, far from her classmates, and spends much of her time alone or else fumbling awkwardly around the few friends she has at school (which include computer-whiz Hiroka and protective male comrade Shinobu). Flashbacks show her making music with her mother, though even the thought of singing makes her physically ill these days — which is one of the many liberating aspects of this new technology for Suzu.

From the moment she arrives in U, she’s able to express herself through song. “Belle” isn’t a musical in the traditional sense, although Hosoda gives the character multiple opportunities to belt out ethereal emotional anthems, casting Japanese singer-songwriter Kaho Nakamura to handle both speaking and performing aspects of the role. (For the English dub, virtual unknown Kylie McNeill proves just as stunning — especially considering the gifted vocalist has fewer than 500 Instagram followers at the moment.) Hosoda wanted a fresh, unique sound, and though Belle eventually becomes the most popular personality in U, her virtual peers don’t know what to make of her inaugural performance, sniping from the sidelines. “I can’t stand show-offs,” grouses one. “She’s not ugly, but…” huffs another.

As with many a viral sensation before her, it takes time for people to discover Belle’s talents, and once they do, the messaging is mixed. Some adore her, others are downright jealous or cruel, but practically everyone wants to know who her true identity: the real you behind the U front. Remember, Suzu can’t even bring herself to sing karaoke, but through Belle, she’s able to unleash the voice that’s been bottled up insider her. And just as Belle is about to give her first massive arena concert, the show is interrupted by the arrival of the Beast, an aggressive, wolf-headed character who represents the bad-boy antithesis to Belle’s delicate pop princess (whose Disney-esque look was designed and overseen by Jin Kim, a veteran of the American animation studio).

In U, the Beast easily manages to terrorize everyone — everyone except for Belle, who responds with curiosity and compassion. Oddly enough, the Beast seems to be the only user who dares misbehave in this environment, which, if it were anything like Facebook or Fortnite, would be a lot more familiar with people acting out behind the shield of anonymity. No matter. Together with best friend Hiroka, Belle determines to identify who this seemingly misunderstood rebel really is. Storywise, it probably would’ve been more efficient for the Beast simply to have kidnapped Belle as he tries to make his escape (at least that way, the two characters would’ve been forced together early), but Hosoda seems committed to making Suzu a strong, proactive protagonist, leading the movie on a long tangent full of dead ends and red herrings as she and Hiroka go about their investigation.

“Belle” works best when our attention is on its title character, less so when the story shifts back to Suzu. The most iconic scene occurs midway through, when Belle finds and embraces her beast, singing “Lend Me Your Voice” as he temporarily drops the tough-guy act in her presence. But there’s still another hour to navigate, as Suzu and company gather around computer monitors, zooming in on details (like a glimpse of Belle reflected in the eyeball of a kid they hear humming that private song) and trying to untangle a puzzle that becomes less and less interesting as the source of the Beast’s temper comes into focus.

Hosoda has created an infinite-possibility universe in which to set this tale, and the at times convoluted story can’t help feeling limiting as our imaginations tease all the stuff being ignored in U’s more intriguing corners. Still, there’s something undeniably empowering in the way U (and by extension Hosoda) recognizes the inner strengths in people who themselves don’t fully understand what they’re capable of. Belle’s big moment — when she risks being “unveiled” (having her identity revealed) in order to reconnect with whoever’s hiding behind the Beast’s monstrous AS — feels like a scene destined for anime history. In a sense, movies aren’t so different from the virtual worlds a platform like U offers, and this one promises a special kind of escapism while going out of its way to keep it real.

‘Belle’ Review: A Feminist Beauty and the Beast Fable for the Digital Era

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival, July 12, 2021. (Also in Animation Is Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 121 MIN. (Original title: “Ryû to sobakasu no hime”)

  • Production: (Animated – Japan) A GKIDS (in U.S.), Toho (in Japan) release of a Studio Chizu production. Producers: Yuichiro Saito, Genki Kawamura, Nozomu Takahashi. Executive producers: Keiichi Sawa, Kyo Ito, Nobuaki Tanaka, Takeshi Kikuchi, Yuka Saito. Animation producer: Hiroyuki Ishiguro.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Mamoru Hosoda. Camera: Ryo Horibe, Manabu Kadouno, Yohei Shimozawa. Editor: Shigeru Nishiyama. Music: Ludvig Forssell, Yuta Bandoh, Miho Hazama. Animation director: Hiroyuki Aoyama.
  • With: Voice cast (English dub): Kylie McNeill, Chace Crawford, Paul Castro Jr., Manny Jacinto, Hunter Schafer, Brandon Engman, Jessica DiCicco.