Belle tells the story of Suzu, a jovial yet emotionally withdrawn high schooler who is distraught over the loss of her mother. She bears a seething hatred due to the lack of understanding as to why her mother performed such an act of self-sacrifice. Hating her position in her life, she retreats to a vast online world known as “U” and adopts the world as her new refuge for her improved self. However, her life is about to get more complicated when her presence becomes more exponentially famous due to her inherent talents as well as her encounter with a mysterious dragon-like figure that may have more in common with her than it lets on.
Acclaimed animation director Mamoru Hosoda dives back into the world of the Internet to deliver a sci-fi fairy tale that manages to be both global in scale and intimate in pathos. Inspired by the story of Beauty and the Beast, Hosoda has made another beautiful, exhilarating and heartfelt wonder of a film. The film delves into familiar themes like in his previous work like characters leading double-lives, messages revolving around love and acceptance, buried emotional turmoil, a strong sense of community. However, like all of Hosoda’s work, all of it is conveyed through maximalist fantasy leanings and genuinely humane characterizations that are emotionally stirring.
The animation of the online world “U” is spectacular. The rending of both hand-drawn animation and computer-generated imagery lends the world both a sleek modern shine that depicts the technological look while also brimming with such kaleidoscopic colours that makes the fantasy element of the film sparkle. The two mesh together to make a unique otherworldly setting that it becomes easy to believe why no one would ever leave it to go back to the real world that the film depicts as morbidly mundane. Hosoda also mines humour out of anime tropes like satirizing the slice-of-life cliches of the interactions between high schoolers as well as the avatars in the world of U being amusing riffs of “tokusatsu” costumes.
Hosoda manages to mix the fantasy elements with the human drama with remarkable ease; particularly in the case of depicting triggering taboo issues. Wrapping around the trials and tribulations of both the real and the online world, Hosoda explores bullying, coercion, self-esteem, cancel culture with bite; never sugarcoating the actions as well as the following consequences of them. The bond between Suzu and the creature is not completely faithful to the popular tale as it dispenses the Stockholm Syndrome element. Nevertheless, with an element of empathy and compassion, the bond succeeds in being genuine, heartfelt and never cloying. Without going into plot spoilers, there is a moment in the film where the audience realizes the nature of the dragon-like creature and why it has certain features with its appearance. Once the reveal comes, it becomes heartbreaking to watch and changes the trajectory of the entire film.
As with Hosoda’s films, the amount of plot in his stories may be overwhelming to experience at first. The exposition for the exposition is stellar in its delivery as it is succinct, fast-paced, laced with genial humour and relies more on visual storytelling rather than verbose jargon and mumbo-jumbo. But once you get into the groove of the world(s) Hosoda is portraying, the human element shines beautifully; particularly when the film reaches the final act. The nature of the creature is revealed and where Suzu begins to understand her mother’s intentions and becomes inspired by her.
Overall, Belle is another fantastic entry in Hosoda’s filmography. It is an astounding piece of work that manages to balance both whimsy and pathos in an illuminating and heartfelt way that few filmmakers can do.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Belle is now showing in Australian and NZ cinemas now, courtesy of Kismet.
It is also showing in American cinemas, courtesy of GKIDS.