“A significant misstep for a director who has the skills to actually make people cry rather than cringe.”
Mamoru Hosoda has become one of the major names in anime movies over the course of his career, and Belle is perhaps his most ambitious film yet. Superficially it is a modern, internet-savvy take on Beauty and the Beast — but it’s also a meditation on grief, a study of identity in the 21st century, and a semi-romantic coming of age tale. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for Hosoda as he’s often delved into fantasy, though the brilliance of his previous film Mirai (2018) highlighted a talent for heart-wrenchingly personal observation. There’s never any doubt watching the director’s work that he is a person with grand ideas, but bringing these ideas into reality proves far messier than expected for someone so established.
A shy, perpetually sad teenage schoolgirl named Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is the film’s lead, and much of the story revolves around grappling with her self-perception. Early on, it’s shown that Suzu lost her mum at a young age, and that the grief of that has distanced her from the world. This is where the power of the internet comes into play, as Suzu finds an escape from herself by taking on the avatar of Belle in a virtual world called U. As Belle, she is glamorous and confident, able to belt out incredible music for audiences in a way that she couldn’t in real life. She also becomes curious and sympathetic to an ostracized online figure known as The Dragon (Takeru Satoh). This really is the mere tip of the iceberg, though, with there being so many different threads to follow that the zig-zagging narrative could take hundreds of words to recap.
It’s a two-hour film that still manages to have very little breathing room, falling on melodrama as shorthand to provide character development. This is the case from the very start, with the manner of Suzu’s mum’s death feeling lifted from a soap opera. Worse than that though is how perpetually annoying Suzu is made to be, with the character constantly having hysterical reactions to events. Her frequent wailing sobs are irritating and even quite embarrassing in how emotionally unsubtle they cause the film to become. Pretty much all the characters get the same treatment, unfortunately, thinly sketched and spouting lines that frequently feel unnatural.
Viewers can’t even get used to a particular tone, as the film’s structure is chaotic to a degree that it induces mental whiplash. This is partly a film about real trauma, with Suzu and The Dragon both having serious issues to contend with. Yet the film is often ridiculous, its villains plucked from a Saturday morning cartoon and the digital world’s avatars impossible to take seriously. There are even ill-judged and ill-earned diversions into romance, and how strongly they fail to land is made clear by how a homage to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) seems totally out of left field. If the structure was simplified, or there were just a couple of ideas being explored, viewers might not feel such a distance from the wild series of events on-screen.
Hosoda doesn’t have a grip on his material, and this is highlighted by how his portrayal of the digital world feels utterly out of touch with the reality of the internet. There are many visual cues meant to draw the audience into the idea of how digitally-driven this near future is, such as floods of speech bubbles and cutaways to dramatic video responses to the film’s events. It’s so on the nose, however, that it fails to capture any unique insight on the internet apart from how gratingly loud it all is. Hosada’s ultimate belief that millions of people might unite for good online is unfortunately very naive, too, and betrays the ideals of someone who hasn’t spent much time wading through the morass that is the real internet.
But despite Belle being an often embarrassing muddle, the sincerity that drives the film sometimes shines through. The songs Belle puts out are genuinely quite beautiful and carry some power, hinting at a more impactful version of the film that puts music at its centre. And the journey that Suzu finds herself on, despite being utterly improbable, manages to carry some valuable messages that even the most unengaged viewer will likely find themselves mulling over. The film suggests how people might be able to make important connections with others online, resist corporate power as a unified front, and learn to find their own values thanks to digitised self-expression. It’s disappointing that the multitude of meanings hinted at have little impact, the film never diving into them as deeply as it could or being competent enough to make viewers care.
It’s definitely not worth seeing on the big screen, despite the fact that there are many moments where Hosoda clearly had impressive spectacle in mind. The film switches between 2D and 3D, providing some occasionally stunning shots in both, but the main result is that neither approach feels driven by a strong enough style. The disappointment of this being such a poorly put together follow up to the masterful Mirai is exacerbated by the expectation of an event that being in the cinema provides. Seeing Hosoda’s latest in a much more casual home setting, however, might allow for some of the preconceptions of the film’s quality to weigh a little less heavy. There is enough heart and plenty of ideas to make Belle something that does warrant a second watch. It goes without saying though that this is not a masterpiece, and is a significant misstep for a director who has the skills to make people cry rather than cringe.
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Producers: Nozomu Takahashi, Yuichiro Saito, Toshimi Tanio, Genki Kawamura
Cast: Kaho Nakamura, Takeru Satoh, Kōji Yakusho, Lilas Ikuta, Toshiyuki Morikawa
Release Date: January 14 2022 (US), February 4 2022 (UK)
Header Image Courtesy of Anime Limited