Belle (2021): Review – ‘A poignant exploration of our common humanity’

“Tale as old as time / True as it can be.” So begins the eponymous tune from Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast (1991). Howard Ashman likely wrote those words intending to gesture at the primordial idea of love between unexpected partners, but he could just as easily have been referring to the movie’s inspiration. Originally published in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve under the title “Le Belle et la Bête,” the tale of the farm girl Belle and monstrous prince “the Beast” has transcended to emerge as an archetypal fairy tale that storytellers frequently revisit and remake. The fatigue is real, but Belle (2022) writer-director Mamoru Hosoda manages to incorporate a stirring “Beauty and the Beast” remix into the broader tapestry that is his film’s contemplation on self-love, grief, and human connection. All through animation.

Suzu in a still from Belle

Belle centers on teenage girl Suzu (Kaho Nakamura). A shy “country bumpkin,” Suzu remains isolated from her peers due in large part to the unrelenting grief she carries around from her mother’s tragic death while attempting to save a young girl from a flood. As a young girl, Suzu sang and played music with her mother, something she can no longer do without vomiting as a result of her unresolved trauma. Suzu’s friend Hiro (Ikura) suggests Suzu try out “U,” a massively popular virtual reality world that generates avatars pulled from users’ biometrics and “inner beauty,” as a way to branch out and heal. Suzu enters “U” as Bell and accidentally becomes a musical sensation. While continuing to remain alienated in the real world, Suzu/Bell grows in popularity in “U” until she headlines a major concert, which is interrupted by the mysterious Dragon. Drawn to Dragon just as Belle to the Beast, what follows is an interwoven narrative of how dual lives always come together, and the power that transformation delivers. To say more is to spoil a poignant reveal, but I say simply keep some tissues handy.

Suzu as Bell within “U” in a still from Belle

Unless you’re any of The Matrix movies, delving into stories dependent on vacillating between a virtual world and reality is often the narrative kiss of death. Ready Player One (2018) is a prime example of the worst offenders: the real world ends up an emotionless narrative while the virtual one is all flash and zero substance. Hosoda and team suffer from none of that, building out the visual beauty of each world and maintaining separate narrative stakes that nonetheless converge as we reach the climax. Suzu’s journey towards self-love and healing centers on the steps she takes to re-connect socially in reality while using her virtual counterpart to test out interactions and circumstances which she gradually accepts can be a part of her normal life. This culminates in thunderous form as Suzu works through the rage she harbors thinking about how her mother died for a different little girl instead of staying around to be with Suzu. It is only through recognizing how she can help the person behind Dragon that she understands her mother. 

Bell and Dragon in a still from Belle

Hailing from Studio Chizu, which also released the outstanding Mirai (2018), it should come as no surprise that the animation is positively sumptuous. Suzu’s hometown, from her cozy house and blue and green vistas along her train route to a rather imposing school, continues Mirai’s painterly evocation of the beauty in the mundane. Mundane not to us who are experiencing it freshly, but refracted through Suzu’s dampened view on the world. Therefore, the explosive color and abstract architecture within “U” stand in stark contrast to Suzu’s normal. Adding to this is the fact that all ‘real’ scenes are done in 2D while “U” is always in 3D. The choice amplifies the thematic divide, but also allows for everyone to show off. In particular, the Dragon character design and every scene where he and Belle move around his Castlevania-esque citadel are exceptional. The Dragon’s fangs, tousled fur, and bruised cloak harken back to Disney’s Beast design, but successfully re-invent the image to match “U”s anime bones. Each world is richly built and, most importantly, designed to usher Suzu along through self-actualization. 

Suzu and Hiro in a still from Belle

Belle depends as well on a string of musical set-pieces, all circling the central tension of Suzu’s inability to sing in the real world while moonlighting as a pop star in “U.” For her sweeping domination of “U”s denizens to ring true, the songs have to be exceptional, and the compositional team does not disappoint. Guided by Nakamura’s soaring voice, each of Bell’s performances offers up pop balladry of the highest order. “Gales of Song,” which she sings upon her first entry into “U,” is a tender and aching ode to all who year for connection. The film’s climax coincides with the jaw-dropping “A Million Miles Away,” a song with as much emotional resonance as a narrative one due to Suzu/Bell’s performance functioning as a last-ditch effort to save Dragon from certain doom. Lyrically and compositionally, both of these songs, as well the jazz-infused score and every other moment Nakamura graces the film with her voice, lend Belle the resonance only truly great movie music can. 

Belle is a film that calls upon all the capabilities of animation and filmmaking to fashion a tale as rooted in ancient folklore traditions as contemporary science and technology. Hosoda, the production, the musicians, and every voice actor work in harmony to make Belle a poignant exploration of our common humanity. If you’re reading this as someone who tends to write off animation as simply for children, I hope that Belle can be your gateway into the discovery that animated filmmaking is a bounty to behold for anyone who loves cinema.

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