Japanese animation has been leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the world for quite some time, pushing the boundaries of reality to create beautiful stories that are as whimsical as they are emotionally resonant. Director Mamoru Hosoda was nominated for an Academy Award for his film Mirai, and his latest offering follows in the same thematic threads – limitation-defining animation and a story that is, underneath the sheen, very human.
Belle makes the bold decision to tell an age-old story with a new skin(a tale as old as time, some might say), something I’ve derided from films like Avatar. What was missing in Cameron’s film is present in Hosoda’s; a world full of lush characters that feel and react as realistically as any person their age. These teenagers are silly, arch, and yet fully realized and actionable in their decisions and vocal performances. There’s an old adage in cooking – If you’re going to cook a classic you better do it perfectly. Choosing to adapt the story of Beauty and the Beast from the original French tradition is no easy task, but Hosoda does so with the vigor of a young Jean Cocteau cracking the ancient tome open for the first time.
He’s reimagined Belle as a shy young schoolgirl, Suzu. Struggling to get over the loss of her mother, Suzu spends her days quietly struggling to feel much other than sadness. She’s got a crush on Shinobu, a boy that treats her like a fragile thing he must care for. She’s jealous of Ruka, the popular girl in school that plays a wicked saxaphone. The only solace she finds is in Hiroka, her nerdy best friend that carries a massive hacking desktop computer setup in her backpack. What helps is escaping to “U,” a new online social media platform that creates an avatar based on your personality and abilities. Suzu’s is Belle, a gorgeous pink-haired pop princess that draws millions of users with her voice. Darkness creeps in once again when a “beast” begins to appear, covered in artistically designed bruises and aggressively rising through the ranks of fighters in the digital space.
Anyone that’s seen a Disney movie can figure out most of where this goes, but it’s the immersion in the world of “U” that changes the game for Hosoda’s latest. Belle first arrives on a whale, singing her heart out as mounted speakers share her gifts with the world. She floats through the digital city and flowers burst from her dress, blanketing the cheering citizens with a visual feast as well as an audible one. This is one of the lovelier-looking animated films I’ve seen in ages, deeply imaginative and weird in unapolagetic ways that put other modern counterparts to shame.
Belle is a wildly entertaining object, but its core is built around a simple message – the internet gives us all a voice, a public platform from which we can shout our deepest feelings, but it only matters if we’re willing to listen to what’s being shouted back at us. Belle’s music is an expression of her loss, her traumatic memories, but no one hears anything but a pretty sound. The Beast manifests his avatar through rage and hurt, but no one cares to hear why he’s so aggressive until Belle begins asking questions. When Ready Player One came out there was a small contingent that saw greatness, or at least the potential, and shook their heads in frustration at the squandering of all that groundwork. It’s a world of hurt and loss, one where escaping into the online space to enjoy yourself before humanity goes extinct is the only option. Belle grapples with this idea in a direct way, rather than ignoring its existence as a backdrop. Everyone is escaping into the online world for something, but sometimes it’s a thing the rest of the world needs to pay attention to.
This is one of the most beautiful films released last year, and it’s at last come to a wider release where you can all enjoy it. I hope you take the time, dubbed or subbed, to enjoy this gift from Japan’s wonderful animation houses.
Belle is currently available in theatres.