REVIEW: ‘Belle’ is an Impactful Exploration of the Digital World

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Belle Review - But Why Tho

With the rise of gaming and social media, it has never been easier to escape from the reality of daily living. Throw in a metaverse that allows you to hide in a state of anonymity, and it becomes all the easier to disappear into a world of your own design. The thing is, though, that the effects of the real world always find a way to trickle in. And, when they do, it’s up to the individual and the collective whole to decide how we react. All of this is tackled and more in Academy Award-nominated director Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle. With breathtaking visuals, knockout vocal performances, and a stunning score, it is easier to forgive how much Hosoda packs into the overall story in Belle.

In a smart move, the audience is immediately introduced to the virtual world called “U”. Members of “U” assume an avatar persona known as “AS” that enhances who they are on the inside. This lends itself to creative, fun designs that we get to see every time we enter the world of “U”. Full of vibrant colors and three-dimensional design work, it’s a dazzling display to our senses. It sells us quickly on the world before Hosoda pulls the rug out from underneath us to suck us back into the reality of Belle. This is where we come face-to-face with our lead, Suzu (Kaho Nakamura).

17-year-old Suzu is a high school student struggling with the death of her mother. Having become a muted fragment of herself, the world of “U” provides her with the escape she needs. Equipped with a beautiful avatar (a design that will inspire cosplays, hopefully), Suzu is surprised to discover her singing voice restored. Hiding behind the Bell persona, her voice immediately draws the attention of “U”’s userbase and she goes viral. However, on a day that she is expected to perform in a big concert, things go sideways when a mysterious Beast engages in battle. From there, the story leans into its Beauty and the Beast inspiration. 

Many have already said this, but the visuals in Belle are beyond stunning. In particular, the world of “U” is both overwhelming and welcoming. Whether it’s watching Suzu’s persona perform on top of a flying whale or a gorgeous dance sequence in a castle, it is easy to see how much care, dedication, and work went into creating this alternate reality onscreen. Speaking of reality, the real world stands out in sharp contrast immediately due to its muted color palette. Done in a classic, hand-drawn style, Suzu’s rural village hits this note.

Another highlight is the songs. The lyricism is strong, providing the audience a glimpse inside the inner workings of Suzu’s mind. Performance-wise, Nakamura and Kylie McNeill in the English Dub are a wonder to hear as they sing. On a technical level, the songs themselves are also difficult to pull off, in particular, ‘Millennium Parade’. Hats off to them both for tackling those arrangements, because they get gnarly. Also, it’s safe to say that we need the album, stat!

A coming of age story at the height of internet escapism is a concept that carries itself well on its own. That said, Belle wobbles in how much Hosoda tries to tackle thematically in the film’s story. There’s the emphasis on building a world that realistically mirrors our reality. We see this through cyberbullying, communal commentary online, and more. Then there are additional subplots that involve teenage romance, abuse, etc. While not necessarily bad, the overall impact of adding all of these elements is that it makes the film feel longer than necessary. It also makes it difficult to find the major thread Hosoda wants us to focus on. That said, the positive message that the internet is a tool with the potential to facilitate empathy is not lost. 

Belle is another strong, impactful outing from Hosoda. It’s not the first time he has explored the possibilities of the digital world. However, what we experience in Belle is something that many audience members will relate to regardless of age. While the film itself tackles serious topics and gets off track a bit, there is a charm and humor Hosoda infuses to keep things light and friendly. The dazzling bow that wraps this film up can be found in the film’s memorable imagery and its songs. Seriously, if you don’t want to immediately go find a flying whale after the film ends, we need to talk. 

Belle is in theaters nationwide on January 14, 2022. 


Belle
  • 8.5/10
    Rating - 8.5/10
8.5/10

TL;DR

Belle is another strong, impactful outing from Hosoda. It’s not the first time he has explored the possibilities of the digital world. However, what we experience in Belle is something that many audience members will relate to regardless of age. While the film itself tackles serious topics and gets off track a bit, there is a charm and humor Hosoda infuses to keep things light and friendly. The dazzling bow that wraps this film up can be found in the film’s memorable imagery and its songs. Seriously, if you don’t want to immediately go find a flying whale after the film ends, we need to talk. 

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