“Belle” stars Kaho Nakamura, Ryo Narita, Shota Sometani, Tina Tamashiro, Lilas Ikuta, Koji Yakusho, and Takeru Satoh. Released in Japan on July 16, 2021, followed by the United States on January 14, 2022, the film is about a high school student who encounters a mysterious beast in a virtual world.
The film was written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda, who also directed films such as "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time", "Summer Wars", "The Boy and the Beast", and "Mirai". It is inspired by the 1756 French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. The internet is a place where you can be whoever you want to be. However, that might not be enough to make you famous, especially when you're in a virtual reality world. Aside from the latest addition to the iconic horror franchise, the second weekend of the new year didn't offer anything else that caught my attention. That is until I discovered that a new anime movie arrived in the United States this weekend. That's when I knew that this month might not be so dull after all. This movie marks the latest project from Studio Chizu and Mamoru Hosoda, both of which previously worked on "Wolf Children", "The Boy and the Beast", and "Mirai". While I haven't watched the former two yet, I did see "Mirai" a couple of years ago when it was showing at my closest cinema, and I thought it was fantastic. So when I saw that he was involved with this film, I already became hooked on what he could do with this relatable concept. The movie already made a big splash when it received a 14-minute standing ovation at last year's Cannes Film Festival and became a modest box office hit in Japan. Now, it's looking to repeat that success with its U.S. launch. Was it worth logging on to for anime fans and general audiences alike? Let's find out.
The film centers on Suzu Naito (Nakamura), a high school student who's passionate about singing and writing songs. After losing her mother in a tragic accident, she became resentful and abandoned her dream. One day, under her best friend Hiroka's (Ikuta) suggestion, Suzu logs into the popular virtual world known as "U", where everyone can be anything they want. Think of it as the OASIS from "Ready Player One", but without the pop culture references. Under her new identity, "Bell", Suzu rediscovers her passion and quickly becomes a huge phenomenon. When a monstrous avatar called "The Dragon" (Satoh) arrives at the scene, Suzu goes on a quest to figure out the mystery behind the avatar and discover her true self along the way. Based on the concept alone, it's easy to assume that it's an anime version of Beauty and the Beast set in an online fantasy open-world environment. However, it doesn't go out of the way to become a complete rip-off of the classic fairy tale or the Disney version. Instead, Hosoda used this inspiration to represent a coming-of-age fantasy teen angst drama that deals with self-acceptance, grief, loss, abuse, and the difficulties surrounding online identities. You know, stuff that might be uncomfortable for young viewers, especially when taking its PG rating and animation into consideration. Since I grew up watching the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast and enjoyed anything related to video games, I knew that this movie would be right up my alley. After experiencing it myself, I can easily assume that this virtual tale is as stunning and heartfelt as the classic story that inspired it. "Belle" is another fantastic example of how animation reflects not just from a storytelling perspective but also an emotional one. When it comes to the film's plot, Mamoru Hosoda has a way of making things simple but also ambitious with its themes and narrative. While there were a couple of elements that weren't explored that much due to its pacing, especially the creation of U, Hosoda managed to grab my attention regardless due to the film's characters, direction, style, and messages. I honestly found a couple of sequences that made my eyes sprung a leak multiple times, mainly in the film's third act. Part of that is due to the development of Suzu, where she struggles to embrace her true self in a world where people hide themselves and their painful secrets through different identities. I thought it was well-executed with its engaging scenarios and emotional depth. Some people may find it emotionally manipulative, but I find it to be highly thoughtful and inspiring, especially for those who went through that same situation themselves. When you get past some of the pacing issues and the film's two-hour-plus runtime, you too might find many things that'll make you appreciate the art of animation storytelling. The voice cast did a solid job with their performances, and by that, I mean the English dub cast. While there were some unfamiliar names in the English cast, such as Kylie McNeill (Suzu), there were also some familiar ones, including Jessica DiCicco (Hiroka) from "The Loud House" and Chace Crawford (Justin) from Amazon Prime's "The Boys". All of the voice actors involved did what they could to make the English dub as watchable as the Japanese version, and the result was suitably divine. Kylie McNeill was a shining star regarding her performance as Suzu as she delivered plenty of heart in her character's timid personality. Not only that, but she is also a magnificent singer. Jessica DiCicco also did very well as the voice of Hiroka, and Brandon Engman delivered some good comic relief in terms of his performance as Shinjiro Chikami, Suzu's classmate. Like Hosoda's previous films, "Belle" wouldn't be what it was without the cherry on top: the animation. This beautifully immersive movie relies on the visuals, lighting, and backgrounds to enhance itself on a spectacle and story-driven level. The virtual world of U was also awe-inspiring for its designs and the CGI effects for the avatars. Anime movies usually work best with 2D animation. However, this film proved to be one of the examples where CGI in the anime department can also be as effective with the right amount of effort, especially when combined with traditional animation. I would also give the movie credit for its remarkable soundtrack, mainly the songs performed by McNeill. The music managed to tug my heartstrings in all the right ways.
Overall, "Belle" is a gorgeous and highly thoughtful depiction of the pain hidden by online identity. Despite a couple of issues with its pacing, this animated gem showcases Mamoru Hosoda as one of the finest and reflective storytellers to date regarding the art form. Thanks to its solid cast, fantastic animation, superb soundtrack, and strong execution for its narrative and themes, the film marks another successful effort from the filmmaker and Studio Chizu. It is worth logging into if you're a fan of Hosoda's previous projects and animation in general.