Acclaimed animation filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda returns to a pet theme, the duality within each of us, in his breathtaking new film, Belle. Dazzling visually and musically, the story is many things that once; a high-tech recreation of Beauty and the Beast, a warning about our lack of online privacy, and a commentary on Internet fame and celebrity. It’s a lot that Hosoda has decided to tackle, and it doesn’t all come together perfectly, but you’ll be so stunned by the freedom expressed in his exploration of a virtual reality world that it’s easy to forgive.
The opening scene alone will leave you stunned, as the camera zooms, free as a million birds or the falling confetti that heralds the arrival of Belle, a colorful J-pop singer who arrives aboard a flying humpback whale strapped with stereo speakers. This is the virtual world known as U, and it will recall the digital landscape of Hosoda’s brilliant film Summer Wars. Here, people are free to reinvent themselves through avatars as diverse and weird as one’s imagination can go: monsters, clowns, Mexican luchadores, and plenty of anthropomorphic animals. The 5 billion users in U are fleeing from whatever it is that ails them in the real world.
One of those users is 17-year-old Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura), a somber girl who has never been the same since her mother sacrificed herself to save a child from raging floodwaters. Suzu loves music, or she did before her mother’s death, and would just as much slink into the shadows than brave what the real world has to offer.
Fortunately, there’s U. And in this virtual reality, Suzu has found someplace where she can be someone new. And that someone is, of course, Belle, with her Jem-like pink hair and sparkling aura. She takes the digital denizens of U by storm with her rockin’ first single (performed by J-pop group millennium parade), but with her newfound fame there comes a down side. She’s also attracted the attention of, and herself been drawn to, the Dragon, a monstrous kung-fu beast who has struck fear into the heart of everyone. The only ones who dare to try and stop the Dragon are a squad of superhero justices, but they are just as suspicious of Belle who came out of nowhere.
The most fascinating aspect of Belle is the limitless potential Hosoda sees in the Internet. Into this digital nirvana of U, anything can happen and you can be literally anything. The irony is that as users cover themselves in the flashiest of designs, this fantasy world actually brings out their natural personality. They become more like themselves, whether they like it or not. The users of U have come in there to get away from who they and the people who know them in the outside world, but it’s inescapable. The most powerful weapon utilized by the “heroes” is revealing the identities of their foes, because there can be no coming back from that. The real-world relationships Suzu has, including with her computer whiz friend Hiroka, feel lived-in and textured. Suzu’s anguish over her mother’s sacrifice to save a child she didn’t know still eats at her, and the girl’s confusion over it is palpable. She also deals with anxiety over a boy she has a crush on, and may be someone familiar to her within U, while there’s also the popular girl in school that Suzu idolizes enough to use her face in the online realm.
It’s just unfortunate the central love story fails to have the same level of inspiration. It lays underdeveloped like many of the concepts and characters that Hosoda has packed into an overstuffed story that can’t sustain so much in the online and offline world. But where Belle thrives is in Hosoda’s grandiose vision and ability to transport us, unbound, into a place beyond our wildest dreams.
Belle is available now in select theaters.