For the most part, Belle ticks all the right boxes and boxes that you would expect from a filmmaker like Mamoru Hosoda. With gorgeous animation that hits all the right emotional notes, Belle is a quality film that is required viewing.
Suzu is a 17-year-old high school student living in a rural village with her father. For years she has only been a shadow of herself. Then, one day, she enters “U,” a virtual world of 5 billion members on the Internet. There, she is not Suzu anymore but Belle, a world-famous singer. She soon meets with a mysterious creature. Together, they embark on a journey of adventures, challenges and love in their quest of becoming who they truly are.
Belle has some wonderful touches, with Hosoda deciding that the real world would keep to the standard 2D animation style. In contrast, the virtual world would take on a grander 3D iteration, showcasing how the possibilities in said virtual world are limitless. We also see how deft a hand he has in his direction with a fantastic action sequence in the virtual world that has us all over the arena when Belle is performing. Yet he can also have a truly fantastic scene in the train station with Suzu and her classmates. In this static shot where some revelations are released, we have characters come in and out of frame but still hear their discussions when out of frame. It is one of several humorous scenes that help in creating such a grand scope of a film.
The U virtual world is a very interesting one, and with a runtime of 2 hours, Hosoda has given himself a generous amount of time to world build in the way that he has magnificently. Your Avatar can be anything you want, human, animal, anything. You can float in the air and basically do next to anything you like. Yet Suzu is so low on confidence that instead of creating a fancier version of herself, she uses a photo of her classmate, who she deems to be pretty, to be the face of Belle.
While the visuals are stunning, the story sways from being at times utterly fantastic to as frustrating as they come. However, having the story focus on how a grieving young girl was able to utilise her virtual version of herself to become a more robust and better person is quite a compelling tale. Add in the fact that even when we shy away with our online personas to hide from trauma, more likely than not, those closest to us in the real world are going to be there and be the support circle we really need, and maybe that little push is what helps us realise it. That is what Hosoda focuses on very well, and when the story is centred on that, that is enough.
Suzu has an awkward relationship with basically everyone she knows in the real world; after witnessing a traumatic event at a young age, she has withdrawn from a society that openly wants her to be a part of it. Be that her father, classmates, or even her mother’s friends with whom she sings in a choir. She actively wants to be a part of this real world, but her soul-crushing low confidence stops her from being the person everything, including herself, thinks she could be, and thus, Belle is born in the U world.
Hosoda keeps the heavy themes throughout Belle, with characters coming to terms or confronting specific issues, and at times, it surprises you with how much it is willing to show in that regard. He has made sure to litter his film with a gaggle of unsure people, be it teenagers or adults, as they all try to navigate their own issues; some, of course, may be minor in comparison to others, but to them, they are massive, and they are treated with the greatest of respect.
In Belle, Hosoda allows for all of his characters to have their moments; even the multitude of supporting characters have their moments and bring something important to the finale. It is great writing in this regard to make sure the world and characters he has created have a definitive purpose to the end story.
But Belle overstretches its own story, maybe to reason with its needless 2-hour runtime, with the misguided venture of having some of its stories be a loose iteration of The Beauty and The Beast. As well-intentioned as it is, it simply isn’t needed. This is a coming-of-age story, not just for Suzu, but for those her own age in which she influences. That is sufficient; the rest is a needless garnish that comes perilously close to derailing the entire film.
However, with all the emotional work that Hosoda has flung at Belle, the film can move past it as this is eventually a film that packs many an emotional punch that resonates with you and drives you to want to see where Suzu’s story finishes up with. This is a wonderfully charming film that you cannot help but like, yes, it has flaws, but you forgive it, and you will end up satisfied with this gorgeous animated film.
Belle is out in cinemas from Friday 4th February 2022.
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