With his last film, Mirai, Mamoru Hosoda did a remarkable job of dramatizing the thought processes of a young child, whimsical imagination laced with sharp pangs of sudden fear and uncertainty. For Belle, he moves us into the social media-addled mind of a teenager, bringing the simultaneously impossibly low and impossibly high stakes of high school to visually wondrous life. The results aren’t quite as moving as Mirai, with a more muddled and less focused story, but gorgeous animation and an often epic sense of scale make Belle an anime to see on the biggest screen possible.
Part reimagining of the Beauty and the Beast story, part deep dive into the connections one forges online, Belle follows Suzu (Kaho Nakamura), a shy schoolgirl whose anonymous online avatar Belle is one of the biggest stars on VR social media platform ‘U’. Hosoda’s imagining of a near-future online life bears more than a few resemblances to Ready Player One, with U acting as a full sensory transportation to a vast virtual universe where you can be whatever you want. As Belle, Suzu becomes a superstar singer, attracting audiences of millions to her eye-popping concerts until one is interrupted by The Beast, one of U’s most infamous villains.
Of course, Belle/Suzu sees deeper, endeavouring to find the soulful truth beneath The Beast’s monstrous exterior (his design is part wolf, part wild boar, part vampire). Hosoda freely cribs from the Disney take on Beauty and the Beast, right down to a spinning ballroom dance, but his visuals are so extravagantly beautiful that it never feels like cheap pastiche, bright lights and stunning colours keeping you glued to the screen. Meanwhile, Belle’s concerts are triumphant, stirring original songs matched by kinetic, three-dimensional choreography and some brilliant pieces of design, from a whale kitted out with hundreds of speakers to a giant sapphire dress that sparkles in and out of existence as Belle sings.
The quest to discover The Beast’s castle and true identity is a gripping one, Suzu floating through the very ends of U’s digital world in search of answers, but the real-world stories are more of a mixed bag. There are romantic rivalries that prove very funny, and Suzu’s throughline of constant grief since the death of her mother when she was young is moving, but there’s a lot of downtime whenever we leave U, which makes the whole film feel longer than it should, and the ‘real-life’ ending feels tacked on. It’s a rather credulity-stretching climax that comes after the absolute home run of Belle’s final concert, to the detriment of the ending as a whole.
It’s an unfortunate bum note to end what is otherwise a mostly spectacular and joyous anime with clever things to say about the masks we wear in public, both online and in person. Balancing traditional Disney-style romance with a state of the nation address for Japan’s – and the world’s – digitised youth, Belle takes the ‘Tale As Old As Time’ and gives it a dazzling HD makeover.