Belle (GKIDS, PG)

Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a shy, awkward 17-year-old who’s been living in her own shell since the death of her mother when she was a child. She pines for her childhood crush Shinobu (Ryo Narita), she aches with jealousy over gorgeous, flawless classmate Ruka (Tina Tamashiro), and gets nothing but grief from her snarky best friend Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta). She is also obsessed with singing and music but her walled-off emotions prevent her from doing it in public. Everything changes when she gets an invite to “U,” a virtual world that lets you live life as an avatar that amplifies all your greatest strengths. Suzu enters U as a freckled, pink-haired avatar named Bell (the English translation of the name “Suzu”) that bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Ruka, and the anonymity of her virtual persona inspires her to burst into song. Suddenly, Bell is all the rage, with millions of followers around the world who begin calling her Belle (“beautiful” in French, of course). Only Hiroka (who helps with the production of it all) knows her secret, while the real world Suzu still stays clammed up, terrified that people will find out her secret identity. But as Hiroka tells her, “Nobody would ever guess that Bell is a mousy country bumpkin like you.”

At the height of her fame, one of Belle’s concerts is interrupted by a horned beast known only as The Dragon, who is being chased by the Justices, a sort of superhuman paramilitary group led by hot-headed Justin (Toshiyuki Morikawa) that have put it upon themselves to police the world of U whether people want them to or not. (In a surprisingly utopian vision of virtual social media, it’s clear their services are unwanted and tend to cause more harm than good.) The Dragon escapes, but Belle is drawn to his sadness, personified by his cloak, which is covered in mysterious glowing bruises. Who is behind the Dragon avatar, why does he hurt so, and can this virtual beauty find a way to soothe this savage, tragic beast?

Yes, this is “anime does Beauty & the Beast,” but the fairy tale connection is one of the least interesting things about Belle (or, as it was known in Japan, The Dragon and the Freckled Princess). What’s truly amazing is how writer/director Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, Wolf Children) has envisioned the future of technology. The real-world discourse surrounding the potential of a “metaverse” has made the concept look painfully lame, but if Mark Zuckerberg can make it even look even half as cool as U, sign me up, because it’s a real showstopper. U is shown as a wildly inventive world where avatars of every shape and size float in a sort of city suspended in the sky. Recreating reality was not high on the U creators priority list: the avatars are generally light years away from humanoid in appearance, and surreality abounds at every turn—at one point, Belle sings a concert atop the head of a whale covered in speakers, just as an example.

To capture the otherworldly vibe, two different animation styles were used by two different animation staffs. Animation director and character designer Hiroyuki Aoyama crafted the “real world” in the very traditional, very realistic cell-animated style of Hosoda’s last feature, 2018’s Mirai. But the world of U, as envisioned by animation director Takaaki Yamashita and character designer Jin Kim, uses a 3-D-turned-2-D style. In it, the character movements are created using 3-D models, but whereas in, say, a Pixar movie the characters would be presented as 3-D, textured objects in a 3-D world, Belle gives them the cell-shading of a 2-D drawing. The slight artificiality of that style of movement and the slight difference between Aoyama and Kim’s art styles marks the world of U as “other” as compared to the “real” world, yet the two styles still comfortably sit together as part of the same movie.

What works less well is the Beauty & the Beast angle. Hosoda clearly intends for that part of the story to carry the bulk of the film’s emotional weight, but he fumbles from a lack of clarity. Maybe it was a desire to avoid boring the audience by retelling too much of the classic fairy tale, but it feels like the emotional connection between “Belle” and “The Dragon” is established via shorthand and thus doesn’t feel fully earned, and the machinations as the story rockets to its conclusion get convoluted and the reasoning behind certain character actions isn’t justified in a way that makes much sense. That said, that side of the film is far from a total loss. It’s probably unsurprising given the rest of the film that the visuals are top notch, particularly the Dragon’s snarling design and his kinetic battle with the Justices. Whenever Belle and the Dragon are together, the world of U is tweaked to give it a romantic swoon akin to the Disney take on the fairy tale, right down to a sweeping ballroom dancing scene.

But beyond the inventive visuals, Belle ultimately lands because of the emotions mined from Suzu’s life in the real world. There’s something that feels very honest about the painful awkwardness of her high school experience; her melancholy feels earned, as does the growth she experiences over the course of the movie. Much of the film’s humor is drawn from these high school shenanigans, from day-to-day cattiness among classmates to the fumbling attempts at romance. In particular, there’s an extended scene in the middle of the film where secret feelings tumble out into the open that’s as hilarious as it is heartfelt.

And on top of that, the music—oh my god, the music. Penned by Ludvig Forssell, Taisei Iwasaki, and Yuta Bando, Belle’s big pop songs have the far-flung future dancefloor energy of Dua Lipa while the piano ballads have out-sized emotions straight out of a Disney classic. Nakamura does her own signing as Belle, and nails every mood. The songs are not just ear candy, they bring life to Suzu’s emotional journey through the film, and are one of its main highlights.

The film is rated PG but parents should note that the film is more appropriate to the 10-and-up crowd than younger kids, as there are scenes of dramatic intensity, some bloodless violence, and frank (but not gratuitous) depictions of child abuse. There’s also quite a bit of screentime dedicated to the pangs of high school romance, and we all know how little kids feel about mushy stuff, right?

Only the original Japanese version was made available for review, but the film is also screening in an English dubbed version. GKIDS took the risky move of translating and rerecording the songs in English, casting 19-year-old newcomer Kylie McNeill as Belle, but if the hit reel they released is any indication, the risk paid off. The English voicecast also includes Paul Castro Jr. as the Dragon, Chase Crawford (Gossip Girl) as Justin, Manny Jacinto (The Good Place) as Shinobu, and Hunter Schafer (Euphoria) as Ruka, among others. | Jason Green

Belle will have a special IMAX screening on January 12th at Ronnie’s Cinema (5320 S. Lindbergh Blvd.) followed by a wider standard release the following day in both English dubbed and subtitled formats, depending on the screening. For locations and showtimes or to purchase tickets, visit www.bellefilm.com.

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