AIDAN SMITH-FAGAN WRITES — These days, remakes and reboots rarely offer surprises on the silver screen. But Studio Chizu’s Belle -which hit US theatres January 14th– goes beyond the typical remake formula to fully reimagine and reinterpret the classic Beauty and the Beast tale. Writer/director Mamoru Hosoda not only builds a beautiful visual world for this 21st-century fable, but adds a new twist to the themes of the original story.
“Belle” follows Suzu Naito, a shy and unassuming teenager living in rural Japan. Although she has few real-world friends and deep social anxiety, Suzu finds freedom in U, a massive online virtual reality world. Using her digital alter ego Belle, Suzu becomes a world-famous singer, adored by millions of fans across U. But when another virtual avatar -known only as ‘The Dragon’- interrupts one of Belle’s concerts in a brawl with other users, Suzu becomes intrigued; she goes on a quest to find the reclusive Dragon’s castle to help him overcome his deep anger and torment.
Since I saw a Japanese showing with English subtitles, I can’t speak to the performances of Belle’s Japanese cast, with the exception of Kaho Nakamura’s (Suzu/Belle) superb singing voice.
But the real star of Belle is Hosoda’s vision of a VR-internet: U is a kaleidoscope of colors, characters, and animation styles. Highways of fantastically dressed users fly between the skyscrapers of U’s digital cityscape. And Belle’s performances in U are true visual spectacles, with floating arenas, speakers embedded in a flying virtual whale, and gusts of rose petals exploding from a costume change.
Even more impressive than Belle’s worldbuilding is its blend of animation styles. While the real world of Suzu’s high school anxiety and drama is portrayed in hand-drawn, two- dimensional animation, U and the persona of Belle are 3-D CGI. And Hosoda knows how to effectively blend these two styles. During one particularly striking moment, a collage of 2-D screens of social media reactions to Belle’s singing floats through three-dimensional space to form a collage of Belle. Whenever possible, Hosoda integrates the story, characters, and humor through the animation itself. The result is visuals that -despite telling an age-old story- never feel stale (even when paying homage to the 1991 Disney film).
Although drawing inspiration from a classic fairy tale, Belle takes its story and characters in a markedly different direction. Prior iterations of Beauty and the Beast are mostly about how beauty is more than skin deep and true love can overcome all challenges. But Belle’s story hits a more specific (albeit related) point: the power of human empathy and vulnerability.
Without giving too much away, Suzu’s journey is less about saving someone else’s hidden humanity and more about discovering her own self-worth. Throughout the film, Suzu learns how to be fully vulnerable as her real self, without the backing of her world-famous alter ego. And in doing so, she learns how to reach out to others in order to empathize with their pain and anxiety.
Belle is a fable perfect for the COVID age, one well worth seeing before it leaves theatres. Beneath its spectacular animation is a story about how personal connection overcomes isolation and sadness. This vision of a VR-scape is, ultimately, optimistic: U is a version of the internet in which humanity and empathy overwhelm meanness as well as vitriol to help heal the users behind digital masks.
Eat your heart out, Zuckerberg.