Belle is something of a conundrum. Director Mamoru Hosoda delivers one of the most visually impressive animated features of the year, especially during the virtual reality sequences. At the same time though, the narrative is an oversimplification of adolescents’ obsession with social media which dampens the eye-popping character and world designs.
Belle follows the life of Suzu, a teenager unable to overcome the grief of her mother’s untimely death. The only escape she finds is in U, a virtual reality world where everyone’s best qualities are amplified. There the solemn Suzu transforms into Belle, a global pop sensation with the vocals of a soothing siren. It is in U that Belle finds her voice both literally and metaphorically. That is until a mysterious beast named Dragon disrupts her concert, and possibly her heart. Suzu must then uncover the identity of Dragon before it is too late.
The overall plot hues quite closely to the French “The Beauty and The Beast” novel. However, there are some moments where the setting feels like a replica of the iconic imagery from Disney’s classic 1991 interpretation, particularly in Dragon’s castle. For a film that is wholely original in its creation of U, it’s a small detail that reminds you too much of the script’s source material.
Additionally, Hosoda’s approach to social media through U can often come across as too straightforward. The theme of using a digital persona to find one’s physical self peaked back in 2018 (with Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade) and Belle offers little else to add onto the concept. Belle‘s enlightened teenagers feel trite and lack substance, especially compared to our society, where the youngest generation’s digital and physical selves are indistinguishable from one another. However, while there are problems with Belle‘s overall messaging, Hosoda should still be celebrated for delivering a gorgeous animated film that appeals to more than just the matinee family crowd.
The Silver Lining
Even though the narrative starts to unravel a third of the way through, the world-building in the first act of Belle is exciting and special. The virtual world of U feels fully realizing and lived-in, from quarter-sized machine that attached to one’s temple to connect them to the mainframe to the explanation of the avatar process (which are called AS). The first fifteen minutes of Belle lay out this environment beautifully without it ever feeling overstimulating or too expository.
Belle is now playing at a movie theater near you.