With stunning visuals and a great soundtrack, Belle finds itself at an interesting intersection of several familiar properties, but still manages to be something new. This Tron meets Beauty and the Beast tale from director Mamoru Hosoda (Summar Wars) explores themes of loss, grief and coming of age. Unfortunately, it bites off more than it can chew.
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Belle centers on Suzu, a high school student in rural Japan that has been struggling to connect with people since a significant loss in her life. All of this changes when she enters “U” a virtual world akin to Tron’s Grid on steroids or Facebook’s forthcoming Metaverse. There, Belle’s avatar is everything Suzu believes she is not. Beautiful, strong and outgoing. Her newfound confidence leads her to go viral and become a globally-adored singer, putting on concerts for the 5 billion registered denizens of “U.”
Imma let you finish, Belle
It is during one of these concerts that she comes face to face with “beast,” who is being hunted by self-appointed protectors of “U.” It’s after this encounter that Suzu is determined to uncover the identity of Beast. She’s aided by her best friend and “girl in the chair,” Hiro. Suzu’s quest to unmask the beast becomes a journey of self-discovery.
There are several things that worked for me in this film. The first is the style. The film is undeniably gorgeous to look at. I was immediately sucked into not only the virtual world but the “real” one of Belle as well.
Another highlight of the movie is the music, particularly the main theme “U” by millennium parade and “Lend Me Your Voice.” Both are arresting in their own right.
Lastly, I enjoyed Hosoda’s take on the internet. While some of the more dour aspects of it were familiar, it still feels more optimistic than not, which I appreciated.
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Unfortunately, it’s not all pixeled sunshine and virtual rainbows. While I enjoyed Suzu’s journey of self-discovery, the pacing didn’t do the film any favors. I found my attention waning, particularly whenever high school melodrama reared its ugly head. Suzu’s issues outside of school as well as the mystery of finding out who the beast was were far more interesting.
Additionally, there’s too much exposition in the explanation of “U.” It’s been 20+ years since The Matrix and 40 since Tron. Avatars and virtual worlds need little explanation.
Lastly, I’m not entirely convinced Beauty and the Beast overlays on top of this story as much as the director and writers think. There’s a castle, rose and servants, but it all feels strangely shoehorned into this tale. It’s clumsy and I can’t help but wonder how much more I would have enjoyed this had the director and writers simply crafted their own “fairy tale” to go along with their virtual world.
One additional thing occurred while I was writing this review. I was familiar with but had never seen Hosoda’s other famous work, Summer Wars. It was commended to me with the recommendation that before I finalize this review, I take a look. Having done so, I can say that fans of that work will find more than a few similarities. Additionally, if that is what has prompted your interest in Belle, I think you may want to adjust your expectations slightly, as the narrative in that has similar themes, but is more streamlined and better overall.
Belle would have benefitted from editing for time and a narrative that did a better job tying Beauty and the Beast (or jettisoning that aspect altogether) to its overall themes. In the end, that would have yielded a better result for what feels like strong ideas with an uneven execution. That said, this is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination and one could simply be satisfied with great visuals and fantastic music (which I’m listening to right now…while I write the review…not while you read it).
Academy Award-nominated director Mamoru Hosoda’s latest film, Belle was originally released in Japan in July 2021 under the title Ryu to Sobakasu no Hime (The Dragon and the Freckled Princess) and hits US theaters on 14 January 2022.