‘Belle’ is an imaginative and immersive modern take on a classic fairytale. This film is big– it’s a spectacle to behold. The visuals are insanely stunning– vivid colors, a blend of soft and sprawling digital landscapes, captivating costumes, and unique character design.
Our main heroine, Suzu, or Belle in U, is a timid high school girl who has been withdrawn since her mother passed away in a tragic accident. While she feels like a nobody in the real world, she finds confidence in the digital land of U. There, she is able to sing again– something she hasn’t done since the aforementioned passing of her mother.
She immediately garners attention for her singing chops as well as her specific sort of beauty. With the help of her friend, Hiro, she becomes a U superstar. The real plot of the movie is then kicked into gear by the unexpected appearance of “The Dragon” or “The Beast” at a virtual concert Belle is putting on. While the general public have mixed reactions to The Dragon, Belle is intrigued by him. She wants to know who he is, and eventually she strives to protect him from a vigilante-esque group inside U. Belle’s singing plays an intricate part in the narrative of the film.
Of course, the music of ‘Belle’ is a star all on its own. Both Kaho Nakamura and Kylie McNeill, the Japanese and English voice actors of Suzu respectively, give powerhouse performances as the protagonist. The more upbeat, poppy songs of the soundtrack are fun, lively, and infectious. The slower songs on the soundtrack, namely “Gales of Song” and “Lend Me Your Voice,” are gorgeous masteries of music and show off the vocal prowess of both Nakamura and McNeill. Belle’s songs are almost their own character. They’re a vehicle, they propel the story along while also setting the tone. The score is nothing to shake at either, providing a perfect backdrop to the film’s emotionally charged scenes. ‘Belle’ was initially intended to be a musical, but writer and director Mamoru Hosoda found this to be difficult due to Japan not having a culture of making musicals. Still, he wanted music to be a central point, and it’s obvious how much care and passion went into creating the soundtrack.
Like the rest of the movie, the famous ballroom scene brings a new twist to something classic and beloved. It’s not traditionally romantic, but it’s filled with affection, intimacy, and softness. It’s a dance of trust, of safety in each other’s presence, and it’s breathtaking. The titular Belle provides the song that the pair dance to, and the visuals give the viewer a trip into the stars. If I could watch this sequence over and over, I certainly would.
Not unlike the Disney ‘Beauty and the Beast’ most of us are familiar with, this movie offers some deeper commentary on mob mentality, oppression, and justice. When Suzu is in conflict with the acting antagonist of the film, Justin, she confronts him by saying
“You don’t care about justice. You just want to control people.”
This really stuck with me. It’s interesting to include such a line in a film about a virtual plane of existence with real world consequences. We don’t know who Justin is in the real world, but he’s appointed himself a “protector of the peace” inside U. During the intro of the film, we learn about the creators of U, but we never see them. We just know that they have the power to “unveil” any of the avatars inside U– a power Justin also has, and one he fully intends to use to his own advantage. Whether intentional or not, this has ties to the climate of the world today and the way people in power will use said power to oppress those they see as beneath them. It certainly isn’t the film’s biggest takeaway, but it’s important to consider nonetheless.
While ‘Belle’ manages to tackle a lot of different concepts in its 124-minute runtime, one such concept is that film is about the beauty in being… you. Where most people know of the story of “Beauty and the Beast” as a romantic tale between the two leads, this movie is more about both the kindness you show to others and the kindness you show yourself. Suzu didn’t think of herself as anything special until she was able to step outside of her comfort zone. And while it seems like she may only be able to do this in the guise of Belle, we see her turn that notion on its head. We see her find her true voice as no one but herself, as well as getting to see her physically put herself between someone she cares about and something causing them pain. Suzu never has a traditional romantic interest in the film, but it’s still about love all the same. It’s about love between family, friends, yourself, and all the diverse ways that love can come into your life.
‘Belle’ is a must see for any fans of animation, fairytales, or any amazing meditation on self-love and sacrifice. It’s a heavy watch, but it leaves the viewer with a hopeful feeling in their chest. While watching, I was truly thrown through many emotional loops. Suzu’s growth as a person is something the viewer can feel proud of. There are earth-shattering scenes of despair. There are incredible moments of joy. But if I could only use one word to describe the film, it would be triumph. This film is a triumph of the animation medium and of storytelling as a whole. ‘Belle’ premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival only to be met with an incredible fourteen-minute-long standing ovation– something it very much deserved. Make sure to check it out at a theater near you!