Mamoru Hosoda is a director whose works I have had somewhat mixed reactions to. While I very much liked his Summer Wars, I found his Wolf Children to be too much a paean to an impossibly perfect mother. (I have never gotten around to seeing The Boy and the Beast or Mirai.) Hence I was a little apprehensive about a work which was essentially transplanting the classic Beauty and the Beast story into an online environment. After seeing it in the theater, I am pleased to say that I was concerned for nothing. Belle is not a flawless movie, but it delivers on what counts, and it will be an emotional experience for many.

Much like Summer Wars, the movie imagines a global virtual environment where all people will gather, and posits some interesting (if also, in a technical sense, fantastical) notions about it: the automatically-generated avatars are reflections of a person’s true self, for instance. Exactly how the interface works is hazy, as it doesn’t seem to use a NerveGear/Amusphere-like rig like what the SAO franchise does, but that is ultimately a picky detail which can easily be ignored for convenience’s sake. The more important point is that the environment – called U – pitches itself as a way to remake one’s self and become something different in the virtual setting. That’s a fascinating concept with a broad range of possible impacts, but the story is not interested in exploring that beyond what is necessary for the story.

Though the main body of the story borrows heavily from Beauty and the Beast (and in particular the animated Disney version), this is not a romantic story at heart. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any romantic elements to it, but the fledgling romances are entirely sidelights rather than the main focus. This is instead a story about identity and how it can be shaped by trauma. Heroine Suzu is so thoroughly shaped by the loss of her mother at an early age (and in a way that some call selfish and senseless) that she has lost her ability to sing and struggles morosely through life, until U gives her the chance to be reborn as Bell (no, that’s not a misspelling). In the virtual realm, she finds her voice, and the quality of her songs speaks to many. But there is another individual, a bestial creature who seems bruised and filled with rage, who also captures people’s attention, and Bell finds herself drawn to him, perhaps because she can sense that he is suffering as well. Hence she undertakes a quest to find out who he really is. Meanwhile, a very justice-minded individual in U plays the Gaston role by seeking to unveil the identity of the Beast, whom he sees as a troublemaker, and Bell gets dragged into his quest.

Despite some occasional distractions where Suzu must deal with the romantic entanglements of school mates, the story stays firmly focused on the way its core themes intertwine. It also mixes in some subthemes about the fickle nature of social media, but that is another element which never gets fully explored. By keeping the focus tighter, its late scenes carry more emotional impact. And if the final resolution of the Beast element seems oversimplified, well, it’s easy to forgive that in light of how much of an impression it makes.

The visual style of the movie is very reminiscent of Hosoda’s earlier works, including letting character details slide in real-life group shots. Real-life location detail is quite strong, but nothing seems overly special about the U environment beyond the eye-catching appearance of Bell. I was, frankly, much more impressed with the detail given to Suzu, and in particular how thoughtfully the movie animates her body language.

The real production star of the movie is the music. That may seem strange given how much of the film plays out without any backing music, but the wonderful insert songs just make that much of an impact. I saw this movie in English dubbed form, and dearly appreciated that all of the songs were not only translated, but also done so beautifully that they almost perfectly fit the animation of Bell singing. The translation part is particularly important in this case, as the lyrics speak more deeply to the heart of the movie than just about any other animated film that I can think of, and I have to applaud the wonderful discovery of Kylie McNeill, who both voices Suzu/Bell and sings all of the songs. Quite simply, the whole movie works in English because of her, and anyone who skips watching the movie in English in favor of the Japanese dub is missing one of the truly epic singing performances in an anime title. It’s not so much that she’s the Greatest Singer Ever (though she is clearly very talented), but rather the perfect voice and delivery for the role. See this article for more detail about how she came to be the movie’s star.

Ultimately, the flaws in the movie mostly involve ideas that the movie tosses out but never much pursues and some romantic elements that, ironically, add little to the movie. The final resolution also feels like it did not really solve the problem even though it was suitably dramatic and satisfying. Those are generally minor negative factors, however. This is a movie well worth seeing, and definitely see it in theater if you can.

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