Belle (known as Belle: The Dragon and the Freckled Princess in Japan) is the latest movie from acclaimed animator/director Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) and the fourth production he’s worked on with Studio Chizu.
A loose retelling of Beauty and the Beast (with more than a couple of nods and winks to Disney’s seminal take on it), it’s a tale of the power of social media, a story of love, hate, abuse, loss, and hope. It’s both beautiful and gut-wrenchingly sad and the latter half of it never fails to reduce me to tears no matter how many times I watch it.
Belle tells the story of Suzu (Kaho Nakamura/Kylie McNeill), an awkward high-schooler who was once in love with singing and music. She’s been unable to sing since losing her mother at a young age. Suzu lives her life isolated from almost everyone around her, including her classmates and her father. Her only real companion is her genius best friend, Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta/Jessica DiCicco). Hiroka urges Belle to sign up to the metaverse/social network called “U” which uses advanced virtual reality technology to give everyone their own personalised avatar when they log in, tailored to their unique physiology.
On entering this virtual world, Suzu discovers that the anonymity of the avatar allows her to sing again, and after a slightly shaky start she becomes a well-known and popular performer within this virtual world. While staging a huge concert, someone known as only The Dragon/The Beast (Takeru Satoh/Paul Castro Jr.), who is being hunted by a group of vigilante “heroes” who call themselves the Justices, interrupts the performance. Belle finds herself drawn to the Dragon, driven to try to find out more about him, to understand why he acts the way he does, and who he might be in real life. At the same time he is hunted by the Justices who are determined to “unveil” him and reveal who he truly is to the world at large.
There is a common misconception that if something is animated, that must mean that it’s “for kids”. Belle is not a film for kids. The plot could be politely described as being dense, and leans heavily into the aforementioned themes of loss, trauma, abuse and bullying. It’s perhaps not something you want to willingly expose your young children to. Belle is definitely one recommended for teens and adults only.
It’s undeniably a jaw-droppingly pretty film to look at, with an animation style that hits that sweet spot of being both clean and detailed at the same time. Every scene packs a huge amount of detail on-screen while never feeling like it’s overly cluttered or that it’s hard to follow what’s going on, even during the action scenes. Every character, both human and virtual, has their own distinct look and style that makes them immediately recognisable, from the Dragon’s cloak and bruises to Belle’s freckles, to each and every background character.
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Music lies at the heart of this film, and the soundtrack does not disappoint. The creation of Ludvig Forssell (Death Stranding, Metal Gear Solid V), Yuta Bandoh (Poupelle of Chimney Town, It Comes), Taisei Iwasaki (Dragon Pilot, Spriggan) and Miho Hazama (Evangelion 3.0), it features both instrumental and vocal tracks as well as pop numbers from Millenium Parade and Ermhoi. There are even two different soundtrack releases for the English and Japanese versions of the film, featuring the voice talents of Nakamura/McNeill respectively. Standout tracks include ‘U’, ‘Lend Me Your Voice’, ‘Dragon’ and ‘Fama Destinata’.
Belle is one of the finest anime films in recent years, a triumph of story, animation and music working in harmony to create something truly memorable. On its screen in Cannes, it was met with a fourteen minute standing ovation from the audience. It deserves it.