A high-tech anime riff on Beauty and the Beast set between the virtual and the real, the scintillating new film from Oscar-nominated Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda (Mirai; Wolf Children) is a fable for the age of reality. increased; a study in digital self-performance that doubles as a pretty neat pop star fantasy.
Belle takes her audience into an immersive virtual world known as the U, where some 5 billion people connect with fantastical avatars generated by a unique app that biometrically syncs with the user – channeling their innermost selves through a strange synthesis of the physical and the digital.
As sci-fi, it’s barely a stretch of the online present, where augmented reality, personalized avatars, and identity blurring filters have become part of everyday interaction.
Back in old-school Japan and the real world, teenage peasant girl Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura) is a high school wallflower haunted by the loss of her mother at a young age, an event that ended her her childhood dreams of playing music and made her melancholic and withdrawn.
Encouraged by her best friend turned Svengali musician Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta), Suzu logs into U and creates an avatar that becomes Belle – an incredibly radiant, pink-haired cyber-princess who extracts Suzu’s latent musical gifts and blasts them up. in pop superstar dimensions.
Designed by veteran Disney character animator Jin Kim, whose work includes Tangled, the Frozen films and the recent Encanto, Belle combines the look of the wide-eyed princesses from those films with their anime counterparts, her traditionally drawn features rendered – like much of Hosoda’s film – in a fluid mix of 2D and computer animation.
Unlike the more sinister visions of humanity’s online immersion popularized in films like The Matrix, Hosoda’s view of the virtual world has always been ambivalent – even optimistic – about the potential power of technology to augment and transform the user’s real self.
For a filmmaker who began his feature career with the virtual menagerie of Digimon: The Movie (2000), and whose Summer Wars (2009) explored the concept of an immersive online world, his U-niverse at Belle resembles to the natural extension of so many of his artistic preoccupations.
It’s a world brimming with possibilities and imagination, with spectacular digital architecture (created in collaboration with British designer Eric Wong), wacky critters and a super-city that morphs and swirls with all sorts of strange life. (the background world was developed with Oscar-nominated Wolfwalkers directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart).
Any movie featuring a subwoofer-laden blue whale that cruises across a city skyline can already claim the most memorable footage of the year.
Wired with Suzu’s instinctive talent for music, Belle becomes an instant hit in this virtual world, performing to huge crowds while her real identity – like those of Hannah Montana or Jem before her – remains a secret.
During one of Belle’s virtual concerts, the stadium is crushed by a horny, menacing creature known as Dragon (Takeru Satoh), who comes straight from the dark id of the anime monster.
For the self-proclaimed superhero-like moral guardians that patrol U, who have the power to unmask users’ real identities, the Dragon is a disruptive tyrant to be driven into exile; for Belle, who is drawn to the pain and sadness of the beast, it is an enigma she becomes obsessed with.
No, this isn’t a story about Grimes and his ex, Elon Musk.
Hosoda was nominated for an Oscar for Mirai, but he’s arguably best known — or at least most beloved — for his 2012 animation Wolf Children, a story of the enduring bond between humans and fantastical creatures that was moving for its strong sense of empathy. and loss.
With Belle, he lets the classic French fairy tale – via the obligatory filmic nods to Cocteau and Disney – set his imagination free with dazzling results, finding the soul of the story in jaw-dropping settings in the virtual dragon castle in the sky.
Yet Hosoda, usually so sensitive to the emotions of the servant, isn’t so successful with real-world sequences, that he sometimes struggles to merge with the virtual action.
The IRL search to uncover the real Dragon – a quest that weaves its way through various suspects, from celebrity crackpots to Suzu’s high school classmates – doesn’t have the same kick as its online analogue, while a belated excursion into family trauma is ambitious but underdeveloped.
But the film understands how difficult it can be for many, especially those living with trauma, to form real connections with others in the real world, and the potential of fantasy to shatter anxiety and fear. .
Being “true to yourself” is more complicated in Belle than the usual message of empowerment offered by other films aimed at younger audiences; here, oneself is inseparably real and virtual, a symbiosis that embraces the direction human life is taking, for better or for worse – and which Hosoda chooses to frame with optimism.
At a time when so many Hollywood notions of the future tend to be relentlessly pessimistic or mired in solipsism – where technology and digital immersion inevitably lead to the collapse of civilization – Belle represents a hopeful and progressive vision that dare to imagine other possibilities.
Belle is now in the cinema.