Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle is a departure for the director. Up until this point, most, if not all, of Hosoda’s movies have solely focused on familial connections and the bonds that families have with each other. Sometimes these themes are obvious, like in Wolf Children, Summer Wars, or Mirai. Other times, they focus on found families and the impact they can have on the people within them, such is the case with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and The Boy and the Beast. But Belle is different.
Belle doesn’t focus on the strength and power of family. Family does inform the central characters and their outlooks on the world, but it’s not a driving force. Rather, Belle is a movie about trauma and overcoming it. It’s about internet culture and how a person can overcome self-imposed psychological barriers. It’s a movie that says a lot about a myriad of issues, but there’s one thing that’s certain about Belle.
It’s really good. Like… really, really good.
In an app known as U, any person can create an avatar of themselves to start a second life. By scanning a person’s biometric data, their avatar is unique to them with no duplication whatsoever. Suzu (Kaho Nakamura/Kylie McNeill) wants nothing more than to have a new life. Her mother died when she was young, and alongside her died her love of singing and music. But upon entering U, her avatar, Belle, is able to become a social media sensation thanks to her singing abilities, which causes her to meet a fearsome outlaw known only as Dragon (Takeru Satoh/Paul Castro Jr.). Despite their difference in status and outlooks on life, the two develop a sense of trust for each other, with Belle/Suzu wanting nothing more than to help Dragon escape the bad situation he’s in, both in U and in real life.
On the surface, Belle takes a lot from the fairytale, Beauty and the Beast, but to exclusively read the plot as an adaptation of that story is to miss the point. In honesty, Belle only takes cursory elements from the fairytale to craft its own unique story. Belle is a gorgeous idol who gets to know a dark beast who lives isolated in a castle, feared by the people of U. That’s about where the similarities end as their relationship, which is the core of the film, is not one of romance, but of friendship. Their relationship is strictly platonic, which I don’t think has been attempted by an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. The film only just uses the iconography of the fairy tale as a springboard for its original characters and their unique situations.
Suzu is someone who is desperately trying to overcome the trauma of watching her mother die. For most of the film, we see Suzu grapple with her inability to sing in public and share her talent with the world. Everyone is understanding of this though, including her father, who lets her take things at her own pace, her best friend Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta/Jessica DiCicco), and her childhood friend/crush Shinobu (Ryo Narita/Manny Jacinto). It’s nice to see a main character that has a healthy support network that tries to help her overcome her grief, despite typical teenage issues Suzu exhibits like being shy around Shinobu since she’s crushing HARD on him.
Thematically, Belle has a lot to say not only how family can negatively affect a person. Whether it’s intentional or not, negative family experiences can shape a person’s outlook on life, especially if they’re young and still developing. How does one deal with the sudden death of a loved one? Some families can show nothing but support, but others can become twisted and breed negativity. This is the situation our main characters find themselves in, and it can be tough to watch. Then again, seeing any depiction of child abuse can be tough to watch, but Belle doesn’t shy away from pointing out just how family can be a hindrance on a person, a departure from Hosoda’s usual philosophy.
Hosoda is no stranger to addressing ideas outside of family, and Belle takes a look at another topic Hosoda has a keen interest in; social media and its ability to both help and harm others. I think Belle is probably the most on-the-nose depiction of social media I’ve seen in quite a while. The users of U flock from one sensation to the next, glomming onto whatever piques their interest. Maybe it’s Belle herself, but then she’s quickly ignored in favor of the people wanting to know who Dragon really is. People behave differently online versus in real life, willfully overlooking abuse for entertainment value. Others pry into a person’s private life to satiate their own curiosity, with others desiring to impress others at any cost by lying about their own accomplishments just to inflate their own self-worth to an indifferent audience.
Despite the bombastic opening number, Belle isn’t really about the spectacle. It’s a much smaller and more intimate movie than you would expect. There are no end of the world stakes like there were in Summer Wars, but the film instead focuses squarely on Suzu’s development. We get to see Suzu grow from being a meek girl who can barely communicate with anyone outside of her immediate circle, to standing up for a person she doesn’t physically know. There are villains that she has to stand up to. Men who have power and abuse said power for their own benefits, but they’re ciphers to show how Suzu is able to stand up to them, oppose the people who want to hurt others to satisfy their own need for control.
But there are still plenty of charming and cute moments throughout the film. Hiroka is a little gremlin of a person and I love her. She always has massive computer screens she takes everywhere, ready to hook them up and come up with fifty plans to help Suzu/Belle, whether it be to design outfits for a concert or stave off a Mean Girls-esque civil war over who Shinobu likes. Then you have the budding relationship between two of Shinobu’s friends in one of the most awkward yet pure confessions put to film. It’s so heart-warming yet oh so hilarious. Belle can be dark and doesn’t shy away from heavy material, but Hosoda and the folks at Studio Chizu aren’t afraid to have fun.
Visually, the film is simply magical. At first, the world of U isn’t very impressive aesthetically. It’s a cacophony of wires and servers with no real rhyme or reason, and the avatar design is all over the place, but when the movie wants to have a set-piece moment, it goes big. Belle’s opening concert, Dragon’s fight against U’s defense force, the obligatory Beauty and the Beast dance scene, and the entirety of the climax. The film knows when to be simple and sparse and effectively uses its scale to emphasize the importance of each thematic moment. Even in moments that aren’t as epic as the ones described above, the shots and animation are composed in such a way where you can feel every frame of animation as a character snarls at another, or someone vents their frustrations at the hopelessness of the situation they find themselves in.
If it sounds like I’m being vague, that’s by design. It’s best to go into Belle with no idea what it’s going to do. You should discover all of the little moments for yourself and not have anything spoiled for you other than the knowledge that the film is excellent.
All of it comes together to create a package that only got better the more I watched it. I was an hour and a half into this two-hour movie and I was already certain this was going to be one of the best movies of the year. It may only be January, but my God this is going to be a tough act to beat. But then it just keeps going. It goes beyond just being an excellent watch and enters into territory that I can’t even accurately describe. This is career-best work for Hosoda and crew. This is anime that is going to be talked about and celebrated for years to come.
Belle is life-affirming and reminds me just what anime is capable of. It’s a tour-de-force that has both style and substance. It’ll break your heart and melt it at the same time. It’s the kind of movie that you need to see for yourself. Even if you’re not a fan of anime, I cannot recommend Belle enough. I almost wish Hosoda went into retirement after this because whatever comes next, it’s not going to be as good as Belle. And that’s a fact.