Written by: Robin C. Farrell | January 13th, 2022
Belle (Mamoru Hosoda, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
Quite obviously inspired by the “Beauty and the Beast” tale, Belle’s heroine is the quiet, inconspicuous Suzu (newcomer Kaho Nakamura), a high-school girl still debilitated by grief many years after her mother’s death. Suzu has lost all of her childhood enthusiasm for music, including the ability to sing. She discovers “U,” however, a virtual-reality social-media platform. Science-fiction style, U’s technology uses biometrics to create a simulated embodiment of each user, “able to draw out a user’s hidden strengths.” Almost immediately upon entering the virtual landscape, Suzu bursts into song. Her online persona, Belle, becomes an overnight sensation, drawing the attention of even the infamous “beast.”
Despite the premise, Belle is not much of a commentary on social-media culture or technology, nor is it even a straightforward love story. Instead, it’s largely an exploration of trauma, both immediate and long-term, specifically relating to loss and abuse. Beyond those that usually accompany versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” the subjects of grief, coming of age, quest for identity, body autonomy, and more are all on display here. It’s a lot to cram into one movie, certainly when each strives for equal significance. As a result, the film feels a bit crowded in story and theme.
That said, the emotion is deft and hard-hitting, the plot far from predictable, and the mystery of who people really are behind their U façades offers surprisingly high stakes. There’s some role-switching, but more often writer/director Mamoru Hosoda (Mirai) blends archetypes and motivations between characters. While some sections of the film mirror the plot beats from “Beauty and the Beast” almost verbatim, it also goes in unexpected directions. Many kinds of relationships are tested, not just romantic ones. Furthermore, while the film lays out a lot in the first half, Hosoda skillfully wraps it all up and gives a decent conclusion to all of the many plot threads, no matter how small they are.
Considering how global the world of U is set up, with cutaways and montages of Belle’s universal reach, reflecting the span of our actual world, there’s a range of faces and references to multiple corners of the internet, without necessarily going down all of them, which allows the film to feel largely self-aware but not lewd or off-putting, and distinguishes the real world and U world from one another throughout. The music is absorbing and the animation is exquisite. For fans of “Beauty and the Beast” and its myriad reimaginings, don’t miss this Belle, but be prepared to shed a few tears.