The moment I watched Belle‘s jaw-dropping teaser in April, I told myself that this was a movie I had to watch. Blown away by the visuals and the haunting “Uta Yo” song, I felt such anticipation for Mamoru Hosoda‘s latest title that, had I not received an online screener for this review, the film would’ve already marked my first in-cinemas experience in almost two years — not even Spider-Man: No Way Home managed to elicit such a response.
Was that anticipation rewarded by the film? From a visual perspective, the answer is a definite yes, to the point where I’m tempted to not shelve the aforementioned planned cinema trip and instead head to theaters for a second viewing. Whether it’s depicting the real world or the virtual realm of “U,” Belle offers sights that are delightful to view on a laptop. However, I imagine that they would be utterly breathtaking on the big screen.
With “U,” the film offers a dense, warmly coloured world where varied avatars are unbound by gravity and a second, upside-down cityscape looms over them. Some scenes further enrich the visual spectacle with an army of light particles, the sight of dozens of floating screens and speech bubbles filling the screen, or even the fantastical imagery of a floating whale atop which protagonist Suzu stands and sings as her avatar Belle. At other times, the virtual nature of “U” is used to temporarily substitute the default futuristic landscape for surreal fairytale-like visuals.
The real world of Belle is no less gorgeous, and its scenic and tonal contrast with “U” creates a strong sense of photorealism. There is a lake that Suzu passes in several scenes, and these are among my favourite visual moments in the film, due to the stunning backdrops as well as the reflection of the scenery and light on the water’s surface. The fluid 2D animation is also a treat. My personal highlight is when Suzu walks past said lake with occasional spins, pauses in her step, and gently sways while quietly immersed in song.
I could also happily talk about Belle’s elaborate costumes, the satisfying sense of speed during the chase between the mysterious Beast and the vigilantes of “U,” or the fun turn-based strategy game-inspired sequence. When it comes to the narrative, however, I struggle to be as effusive. This was ultimately not a movie I enjoyed as a whole, as much as I wish the opposite was true, and my desire to rewatch Belle in theaters for the visual experience is offset by the thought of sitting through the plot again.
Belle and the Beast
Belle is the story of Suzu (played by singer-songwriter Kaho Nakamura in her anime debut), a freckled, countryside high school girl struggling with the early loss of her mother. Suzu used to sing with her mother, and the latter’s death greatly affected her ability to engage in the activity. That is, until she discovers the online space of “U.” As her virtual persona Belle, Suzu finds that she has no problems breaking into song (the percussion-heavy “U” and the aforementioned “Uta Yo” stand out), and the attention she catches leads to her sudden rise as a superstar.
However, Belle isn’t the only talk of the town; the mysterious dragon-like Beast has been growing in notoriety, and after a chase between the creature and a group of order-maintaining vigilantes disrupts her concert, Suzu and her friend/producer Hiro attempt to uncover the Beast’s true identity.
Beauty and the Beast is not a story I hold close to my heart, and going into Belle, I expected any major dissatisfaction to be limited to my personal lack of interest in the elements inspired by the classic tale. Instead, I found myself grappling with an entirely different problem that plagues much of the movie — it takes on too much.
Take Suzu: aside from struggling with singing in the real world, our protagonist has become distant from both her father and her childhood friend Shinobu. She also has low self-esteem when not in her Belle persona, some romance issues, and even some resentment towards her mother. That resentment is due to how the latter died to save another’s child, leaving Suzu behind in the process. These details are already enough to fill a movie on their own. And yet, they’re made to share space with the Beast, Suzu’s circle, the vigilantes and their leader, and a heavy subject matter that emerges late into the film.
There just isn’t a clear sense of focus at times, especially whenever Belle moves between the Beast-related plotline and the real-world romance parts. It also feels as if these elements sabotage or hinder each other by virtue of co-existing within the limited runtime of a movie. A couple of minor pacing quibbles aside, most of my dissatisfaction stems from the thought that so many of the movie’s aspects would have fared better had there been more time and space allocated to them.
As things are, the Beast’s bonding moment with Belle and the accompanying musical sequence comes across as a plot necessity, rather than a meaningful event, due to the lack of relationship-thawing. Suzu’s romance troubles in the real world feel tacked on despite their early set-up, and her character arc feels muddled due to the number of issues she has. Meanwhile, Suzu’s distant relationship with her dad is conveyed through several brief interactions that get the message across, but also feel like a mere formality, while her relationship with Shinobu offers some good moments, but ultimately feels underbaked.
Another victim is the supporting cast. Almost all of Suzu’s friends and acquaintances feel more like minor characters or cameos than proper side characters, and so seeing them show up in support of Suzu towards the end of her journey feels odd rather than impactful. I was particularly bothered by how one of Suzu’s classmates seemed to be little more than a walking joke and felt very out of place. Another had some really nice scenes, including a quiet girl-talk session with Suzu, but they feel undercut by her low prior screen time. Hiro and the leader of the vigilantes fare a little better in terms of memorability, but ultimately, the side cast is weaker than in earlier Hosoda films.
And then there’s the final act. It’s genuinely surprising in some ways, namely in regards to the Beast’s real-world identity and the introduction of the aforementioned heavy subject matter, and I applaud it for that. That said, it’s also off-putting to have these significant developments happen near the end of the film. The limited remaining runtime at this point reduces a serious situation that needed room to breathe (as well as more buildup than some very vague foreshadowing moments) to a plot development meant primarily to facilitate Suzu’s character development. The climatic scene still managed to keep me glued to the screen, but it also felt less impactful than it ought to be. Even less satisfying is the resolution, because, despite the satisfied tone of the ending, it’s hardly an adequate way of resolving the problem faced by the characters in the final act.
Hosoda’s previous two films, The Boy and the Beast and Mirai, are movies I didn’t quite take to, as opposed to the adoration I have for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children. However, they didn’t leave me with the level of disappointment I got from Belle. A second viewing of Belle may soften my view of it, but as of now, I see it as a visual marvel that is heavily let down by a story that stumbles and suffers from taking on too much. It’s a movie I really wanted to love, but regrettably can’t.