In theaters this week after a successful run in Japan and a 14-minute standing ovation at Cannes, Belle is anime director Mamoru Hosoda’s exceedingly ambitious, mostly successful metaverse take on the classic French fairy tale Beauty and The Beast. It shifts the action from a Euro-centric village and castle to a small Japanese town and a virtual-reality social network that Mark Zuckerberg could only dream of. And it left me wishing I was as optimistic about the internet as Hosoda apparently is.
BELLE ★★★ (3/4 stars)
The Academy-Award nominated Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Wolf Children, Mirai) credits the Disney classic 1991 version of Beauty and The Beast as the reason he decided to stay in the anime industry during his early years as an animator working for Toei Animation. Hosoda’s Belle is the most popular figure in a virtual world called U populated by five billion active users. People in both the virtual and real worlds are dying to figure out who is the face behind the superstar. Is she a famous actress, performer, influencer, or public figure? No, the person in control of the most popular social-media profile on the planet is a 17-year-old Japanese country girl named Suzu.
An insecure teenager, Suzu is trapped by her grief and resentment over the death of her mother, who drowned while saving someone else’s child during a riptide. Suzu has been unable to sing and write songs since her mother’s passing, but when she downloads U and creates Belle, she gains enough psychological space to sing again. Her first song becomes a viral sensation, gaining her a couple million followers over the course of a single day.
During one of Belle’s virtual concerts she comes into contact with a hostile figure wearing a tattered cape. Referred both as the Dragon and the Beast, this mysterious user is social-media enemy number one, targeted by a group of self-righteous moderators attempting to impose their own morality on what is supposed to be a free space. Recognizing the Dragon as someone harboring trauma of his own, Suze/Belle searches for him in hopes of helping him before his identity is unveiled and he’s banished from U.
Belle is Hosoda’s best looking feature to date, a true international production: the gorgeous 2D animation of Studio Chizu brings to life the real world; the CG metropolis of U is designed by British-based architect Eric Wong; with backgrounds provided by one of my favorite studios working today, Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon (Wolfwalkers). The score from composers Ludvig Forssell and Yuta Bando is one of the best animated soundtracks I have heard in quite a while, and Kaho Nakamura, the voice of both Suzu and Belle, delivers a vocal performance that rivals Paige O’Hara’s in the Disney version.
Yet as much as there is to wonder at in Belle, the film is weighed down by its convoluted narrative. Hosoda wants to tell two stories here—one online, the other in the real world—and I found myself wanting to spend less time in U with Belle and more time with Suzu, who has much more personality and who interacts with more interesting characters. The two storylines come together with a third act twist that goes into some heavy territory, but even in a film that runs to two hours there isn’t enough development in either story for this merger to come together in a meaningful, satisfying way. I also could not shake the feeling that even though Hosoda makes reference to the dark side of social media—cyber bullying, misinformation, clout chasers—his version of digital life is just way too cheery.
In interviews prior to the film’s release in Japan, Hosoda said that he was too critical of the internet in 2009’s Summer Wars, and that Belle served as an opportunity to show that the internet can be used as a tool to benefit everyone. I appreciate his optimism and agree that the internet can be used as a portal for people to escape the problems in their daily lives and to discover (or rediscover) their own strengths and passions. But the modern day internet remains plagued by toxicity and people acting in bad faith. I hope Hosoda returns to this theme—he does a much better job than most when it comes to analyzing the internet—but I also hope that he does so without pulling any punches. Because the individuals, organizations, and governments who exploit the internet daily for their own benefit and not for the benefit of others will never reform themselves on their own.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.