The new movie from famed animated film director, Mamoru Hosoda, swings for the fences, and that’s both a good and a bad thing. (Though, mostly, it’s a good thing). Hosoda, likely most well-known for his movies Wolf Children, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and Summer Wars, returns with his modern spin on the classic tale of The Beauty and the Beast, which is aptly titled Belle. Belle is filled with grand ideas, grand ambitions, and eye-catching, over-the-top visuals.
The movie opens on stunning, 3D visuals of the film’s major setting, the online “virtual community” called “U.” Massive cities as motherboards float in the virtual ether, with inverted skyscrapers and floating avatars as its citizens. A voiceover explains that there are 5 billion users in this virtual world, each of whom have had their biometric data scanned to form their avatars, or “AS.” This is more than just technological mumbo-jumbo – the scanned biometric data is a major plot point, as it allows the avatars to be their true selves in virtual space. The voiceover reminds us – “you can’t start over in reality, but you can start over in U.”
Through the virtual world floats a mysterious woman who sings atop a flying whale. A hard cut to reality reveals that it’s our main character, a shy, grieving girl named Suzu. Traditional, 2D animation clues us into our switch to reality, while 3D animation is always used for U. The imagery is much moodier and lonelier in the real world, reflecting the state of mind of Suzu and the difficulties of dealing with reality. Everything is bright, vibrant, and eye-catching in U, while things are lonely, awkward and difficult in the real world. It makes sense that reality is so painful for Suzu – when she was young, her mom passed away in a moment of heroism, leaving her to struggle with everyday life and forced to grieve from an early age.
So, Suzu is the “beauty” of this movie, aptly named “Bell” in the virtual world. Then, who is the “beast?” That’s one of the central mysteries of the movie and is kicked off when one of Suzu’s virtual concerts is interrupted by the sudden appearance of the monstrous figure known as “Dragon.” Dragon, whose identity is unknown to all, uses the virtual world of U to fight other avatars and has become an enemy of the world’s vigilante peacekeeping force, known as the justices. This group is led by Justin, who is, humorously, sponsored by a bevy of corporations. Throughout the movie, the beauty and the beast meet time and time again and grow closer even as the justices try to unmask the beast.
The plot of the movie is, simply put, all over the place. Again, Hosoda has grand ambitions for this movie, and truly does swing for the fences. On a story level, Belle explores Suzu’s rise to fame as a virtual singer, her interactions with Dragon, unraveling the identity of “the beast,” and the fallout that ensues from that. It’s as messy as it sounds, and not every plot thread works equally as well, but I have a soft spot for any movie that’s overly ambitious and falls short of perfection, rather than an unambitious movie that does everything well enough.
Similarly, there are a lot of ideas being explored by Hosoda here, most to do with internet culture. Most are to do with identity, and how the internet and virtual spaces allow us to hide ourselves while simultaneously revealing our true selves, as is the case with both Suzu and the mysterious Dragon. Suzu’s virtual fame also reflects how, in our world, fans feel a deep parasocial connection to vtubers (virtual content creators) and K-Pop idols like Aespa, who have their own virtual counterparts. The conflict between Dragon and Justin (with his numerous corporate sponsorships) explores how, in our world, corporations want to clean up the internet and have everyone use their real names, in order to keep everything controversy-free and family-friendly. With Suzu’s virtual reality as a famous singer and performer, the movie also deals with the unifying emotional potency of music. Finally, this movie naturally explores how the internet and virtual reality allow us to both escape reality and brings us together.
Tonally, the movie is all over the place, though this should come as no surprise to anyone who watches any sort of Japanese entertainment. There are pop music performances, teenage drama, romance, mystery and more. In some ways, it might be easier to list what’s not in this movie.
If all of this sounds like a lot, well, it is a lot. The movie swings for the fences, but it doesn’t quite hit a home run. There are certainly a lot of ideas here, the plot ping-pongs all over the place, but at the same time, a lot of the deeper, underlying messages are quite simple and fundamental. Themes of kindness and the need for empathy and understanding help ground some of the loftier ideas and the hyper-specific internet culture reflected in the movie. If you tend to be a fan of overly-ambitious yet wildly-specific projects, then Belle might be right for you. If this review already seems overwhelming, then it might be best to pass on this, though you’ll be missing out on a fun, messy and esoteric movie.
Belle is currently screening at movie theaters. Check local listings for locations and times.