Oscar-nominated for the stunning Mirai at the 91st Academy Awards, director Mamoru Hosoda returns with an even stronger burst of human emotion and visual splendor. Belle — which already racked up some notable Annie nominations — packs an ambitious wallop despite recounting us with a tale as old as time. This is not a somber, melodramatic reimagining of Beauty and the Beast, nor is it a spiritual sibling of Disney’s classic 1991 version. In fact, the source material is given a “meta” purpose, whereby characters use the iconic fairy tale romance as a means of self-expression.
With his latest anime fantasy adventure, Hosada demonstrates a surprising amount of insight into how our internet generation communicates. Pop culture referencing has become a safe way to reveal deep feelings without necessarily spilling the ugly details. While Belle is guilty of getting caught up in overt sentimentality, it does one thing absolutely right: prove that certain digital connections can rehabilitate the soul in ways that real-life ones simply cannot. However, this does not mean all life’s woes can be solved with a cutesy avatar and a compelling online narrative. But if you’re able to make a profound impact on thousands of lives without ever having met them, surely you have the capacity to matter to someone offline as well.
No one needs more convincing of this than high school student Suzu Naito (Kaho Nakamura), scarred by a traumatic childhood accident that left her self-worth in shambles. Even her best friend Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta) treats her like a sympathy case to fix. Nothing seems to brighten Suzu’s inner light, not even when her father (Kōji Hashimoto) requests her company for dinner despite knowing she’ll decline.
She also cannot shake her childhood crush on Shinobu (Ryo Narita), who has grown into a strapping young man with a flock of admirers. Suzu convinces herself that he still looks at her like a helpless victim instead of a potential lover. Comparing herself to classmate Ruka (Tina Tomashiro) only makes things worse, as conventional beauty standards override the possibility that Suzu is equally attractive in Shinobu’s eyes.
The only means of escaping her toxic shame is to log into “U,” a virtual reality app game that has overtaken the globe. Much like the popular PC game “Second Life,” “U” provides an entirely digitized world for users to interact and evolve, with social currency being the key to thriving in this new plane of existence. A player’s avatar is finalized once the system does a full biometric scan, combining their likeness and aspired physical representation to create an “ideal” version of their digital identity. For Suzu, the result is a slender, picturesque Princess-like figure with a voice that captivates like no other.
Pretty soon, this avatar named “Belle” becomes a pop sensation, amassing large crowds to witness her concerts. Although Suzu never transforms into a narcissistic pop diva, she never could have imagined that her singing abilities — a talent hidden out of stage fear — could be such a gift to the online community.
In this sprawling metropolitan utopia, people are not who they appear to be. This is especially true for a newcomer known as the “Dragon” (Takeru Satoh), who enrages the populace with unmitigated anger and grotesque features. Clearly, someone needs to tame this “beast’s” fiery heart. Though you may think you know where the story is headed, Belle throws a few curveballs as a reminder that inspiration takes on many forms.
The key to valuing this timeless fairy tale is to remember why Belle and Beast fell in love in the first place (problematic initial power dynamics notwithstanding). Cooped up together far away from the world, Belle and Beast were not beholden to social conformity, as was custom for the period. Unlike their backwards village townsfolk, they were able to form a relationship free of stuffy courtship tradition. By establishing an emotional bond without such conditions in place, they both felt truly seen for the first time.
This, I believe, is what makes people on the internet so emotionally vulnerable. Gone are social expectations and the pressure from in-person interactions, where appearances often steamroll the content of character. While Belle does a good job of touching on the downside of the internet community — namely cyberbullying and mob mentality — it primarily espouses the virtues of digital interaction. For the lonely and socially anxious, the internet has the power to reverse these feelings. In the case of Suzu, “U” provides her with individual affirmation, as well as vital perspective when it comes to everyday hardships.
While its intrinsic beauty is undeniable, the anime stumbles over its own excess. Belle’s grandiose heart and visual ecstasy are not enough to overcome glaring pacing issues scattered throughout. Scenes play out longer than they should after getting their sentiment across, particularly in the latter half when Suzu’s arc is in full bloom. Furthermore, Belle’s ending does very little to explain critical aspects of its resolution for being so bloated. You leave the animated drama feeling a smidge shortchanged despite being emotionally spent.
Hosada makes the mistake of believing that the more time spent with these characters and their plight, the deeper the emotional investment. As imaginative and groundbreaking as it is, Belle is the equivalent of a talented singer adding unnecessary licks and riffs when all the audience wants is just the simple purity of their voice. Regardless, Belle stands tall in its conviction that digital interaction awakens the confident side of you that’s too afraid to come out in the real world.
Belle is distributed by GKIDS and is currently in theaters.