Belle (Cert 12)

1 Disc Blu-ray/2 Discs Ltd. Ed 4K Blu-ray (Distributor: Anime Ltd.) Running time: 122 minutes approx.

Release Date: June 27th   

The internet has become the best hiding place in the world. It is somewhere for those in pain to seek solace, the lonely to find company, and on a darker note, the malicious and spiteful to spread their hate, all anonymously. It is this last facet which makes this open field of communication the perfect place to become someone else.

17 year-old school girl Suzu Naito lives in the Kōchi Prefecture with her widower father, with whom she rarely speaks whilst her mother’s passing has robbed Suzu of her ability and confidence to sing in public. Having alienated others at school through her insecurity aside from tech genius Hiroka, Suzu joins the popular virtual metaverse “U”. Suzu needs an Avatar so she creates a pink haired beauty named Bell.

Arriving in U, Bell starts singing, her alluring voice and enchanting melodies quickly attracting a crowd. Soon, the now renamed Belle has become a sensation and stages her first concert, but is interrupted by a character named Dragon bursting into the dome and fighting U security. Because of his behaviour, Dragon is called a Beast and ostracised, but a compassionate Belle hopes to find Dragon and find out what is troubling him.

Mamoru Hosoda has finally reached the status many directors dream of, where every new release of theirs is eagerly anticipated. After the hugely successful Mirai, brought Hosoda wider international acclaim, he returns to the theme of an earlier film Summer Wars of the world of virtual reality in which corrupt AI threatens to cause havoc that will spill over in the real world.

Belle, to the surprise of no one, liberally borrows the central plot from the classic Beauty & The Beast and transposes it to cyberspace but don’t be fooled, this isn’t a straight up anime modernisation of the tale, there is much more happening here. For the coming-of-age aspect of the story, Hosoda looks back to his breakthrough film The Girl Who Leapt Through Time to provide some down to earth charm and substance to Suzu and the rest of the cast.

Positing Suzu and other U denizens as regular people of all ages and walks of life is the first step to making this fantastic scenario relatable for the audience, since there are scant people on the Internet whose real name appears in all of their online profiles. Suzu chose Bell because her name means “Bell” in English; it is only the beauty of her avatar that led to the name change – after people got over the freckles that is.

Suzu’s real life existence is one of typical teenage upheaval – she is targeted by other girls for being a childhood friend of school hunk Shinobu; the relationship with her father is strained, not because of him – Suzu’s mother died when she was young under tragic circumstances, and they were very close. Attempts by her father to connect are knocked back, not angrily, just forlornly.

Ideally, Suzu’s popularity in U should compensate for the relative emptiness in her life, but thankfully Hiroka, Shinobu, and others are strong support they not only prove Suzu has more to offer than she thinks, but also entertain the audience too. Their general role is comic relief but look beyond this and they too are navigating their own awkward teenage journeys, and Suzu is an unwitting catalyst for their growths.

Like her namesake, Belle’s main concern is protecting Dragon, convinced he isn’t a bad as he is made out to be, recognising the pain in him. Dragon is such an outlier in U, the security force want to reveal his “origin” – expose his real identity – to expel him. Except Dragon has kept secret so well, speculation runs wild as to who he really is, and the eventual reveal takes the story down a dark, socially relevant path that belies the vivid glory of the visual splendour that precedes it.  

Dragon, per his beastly predecessors, hides in a dark castle with little sprites replacing the sentient household objects from the Disney version. This is hardly a coincidence as Hosoda employed Disney animators to make this film, extending to Belle who resembles a Disney heroine more than an anime one. Also, Irish studio Cartoon Saloon provided backgrounds for U, in case of a palpable Wolfwalkers vibe if felt by some of you.

Hopefully these homage designs shouldn’t be too detrimental to one’s enjoyment of the film as a whole, considering this is a small part of an overarching story, whilst we shouldn’t expect anything less from Hosoda in delivering eye pleasing visuals. A slick blend of CGI and 2D animation, U is a different environment from Oz in Summer Wars, less computerised based and more a futuristic take on a regular world but look stunning all the same.

Whilst it might not be immediately obvious, Hosoda is using this tale to point out the benefits of an internet community, whilst simultaneously exploring the parallels of how people are treated in both instances. The lines of communication can be blurred via the written and the spoken word, with conclusion jumping and trial by misinformation rife in both cases. 

Yet, Hosoda ultimately concludes there is good in both worlds if we behave like decent human beings and treat people with consideration and compassion, and not let egos, peer pressure, or other external influences rule our emotions and our lives. If one person can find some degree of worth in us, it can help us find it in ourselves too, which was a core theme of Beauty & The Beast.

Earning a 14-minute ovation after its screening at Cannes, Belle is Hosoda accepting his place next to Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli and Makoto Shinkai as anime directors crossing over to mainstream success. The relevance of the story combined with its innovative take on a classic tale proves the importance of animation as a medium to explore thorny issues with warmth and sensitivity, as well as being artistically dazzling.

 

Extras:

Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD MA

English 5.1 DTS-HD MA

English Subtitles

 

Collector’s Edition Only:

4K version of the film

Bonus Blu-ray disc featuring:

The Making Of BELLE

A Conversation with Director Mamoru Hosoda

The Music of BELLE interview

Finding the Voice of BELLE

Scene Breakdown: The Ballroom

Scene Breakdown: The Station

Hosoda @ Animation is Film

Hosoda Draws Belle

Kylie McNeill performs “Gales of Song”

Design Gallery

Original Music Soundtrack CD

60-page Artbook

16 double-sided Artcards

A3 poster

Rigid Collector’s Box

 

 

Rating – ****  

Man In Black

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