Movie Review: “Belle” by Mamoru Hosoda
Image description: Movie poster from “Belle” by Mamoru Hosoda. A girl dressed in a school uniform including a white blouse and blue skirt stands with her back to the audience. She faces a pixilated background of purples, pinks, and blues with her online avatar in the center. The avatar has pink hair and notable white markings under their closed eyes. The title “BELLE” is printed along the bottom of the poster.
Image source: IMDB page for “Belle”
T/W (Bullying, Death, Domestic Violence, Blood)
Director Mamoru Hosoda takes a modern maximalist approach to Disney’s 1991 classic “Beauty and the Beast.” In Disney’s version, the moral of the story is simple: “don’t judge a book by its cover.” In Hosoda’s adaptation, the moral is … TBD. Magical curses are replaced by virtual avatars (created by biometric data), and dancing furniture and candlesticks are replaced by small AI objects.
Hosoda’s “Belle” truly is a work of art. However, while it is visually pleasing and has one of the best musical soundtracks I’ve ever heard, its plot is practically nonexistent, and its storytelling is woefully underdeveloped. Warning: this review contains major spoilers, so read at your own risk!
The movie starts with the viewer being emerged into the magically visceral alternate virtual reality of “U.” There’s singing, dancing, and thousands of virtual avatars filling the screen. With bright lights, incredibly detailed background scenes, and a mysterious protagonist, it’s hard not to be hooked. As viewers, we get to see the appeal of “U” and gain insight as to why it is so popular. However, just as we get to see the glitz and glam of “U,” we can also see where Hosoda’s plot falls short.
Throughout the movie, you can’t help but feel like you’re missing something. Constantly asking yourself, “Surely this can’t be it? Surely there’s more?” We are introduced to numerous side characters who appear to have an important relationship with the protagonist, but their relationships are never really explored. So much of the movie follows a pattern where something seemingly insignificant is never explored further yet plays a critical role in the progression of the plot. And this cycle continues for the duration of the movie. Not to mention that our protagonist Suzu is underwhelmingly undeveloped.
The basic premise of “Belle” follows seventeen-year-old Suzu (voiced by the brilliant Kaho Nakamura) after the loss of her mother. Suzu’s mother dies within the first 20 minutes of the movie (Disney much?) after impulsively deciding to save a child trapped in a raging river. After witnessing her mother’s death, Suzu becomes a shell of the girl she used to be. While Suzu and her mother used to share an affinity for music, after her mother’s death, Suzu finds it impossible to sing, or at least to sing in the real world. Suzu, intrigued by an app that everyone seems to be a part of, joins “U” and rediscovers a side of herself that has hidden deep within. Suzu finds her voice that has been hidden deep within. In “U,” a virtual reality app that allows users to create an alternate ego and explore an alternate reality, Suzu is known as “Belle” an avatar with bright pink hair and a row of freckles underneath her eyes. Unbeknownst to Suzu, her best friend Hiro (voiced by Lilas Ikuta) transforms Belle into a pop star overnight.
“Belle” had so much potential to be something incredible, and I would argue that for the first 90 minutes, it was. I love untraditional retellings of classic stories, and “Belle” really gave me hope. The music, the visuals, and the gorgeous character designs captivated my attention in a way no anime movie has done before. I was immediately immersed in the story. “Belle” was like candy for my brain. And then… it just changes. The past hour and a half I spent learning the characters, their struggles and desires, understanding the world-building, and appreciating the angst between our two protagonists, is thrown out the window. As a viewer, I was in utter disbelief. How do you spend 75% of the movie building this entire story just to completely scrap it in the last 25 minutes? I was so shocked. Hosoda decided to introduce an entirely new plot in less than half an hour, turning what could have been a masterpiece into an absolute train-wreck. It was rushed, confusing, and made me question my own sanity. The last thirty minutes were so awful I couldn’t help but wonder if I was watching the same film. Seriously, after the movie ended I spent nearly 10 minutes trying to figure out what happened.
Lackluster storytelling aside, “Belle” excels in music and aesthetically pleasing visuals; however, it completely misses the mark on plot and consistency. Hosoda plays it too safe. He wants to grapple with the increasing severity of internet toxicity and the consequences of living in an alternate reality while also pushing a message that social media can be used for good. For example, when the girls at Belle’s school think she’s dating a boy the popular girl likes, Suzu is thrown into the world of high school cyberbullying. With a swipe of a finger Suzu’s life nearly goes up in flames. Suzu becomes a victim of cruel high school gossip and what’s worse? Suzu, the victim in all of this, is forced to put out the fire or face the wrath of hundreds of high school girls. Thankfully, besides a quick burst of crippling social anxiety, Suzu does not experience any other harm. She also ends up becoming friends with the girl who unintentionally made Suzu the target of her school’s fury. While that’s nice and all, where’s Suzu’s justice? Hosoda definitely tried to tackle cyberbullying but it just came up short. His approach reduced that encounter to the hysterical-boy-crazy-high school girl trope and lacked any meaningful depth about the cyberbullying in high school
Another example is whenever the Beast appears on screen, he receives tens of thousands of hate comments and is abused both in real life and in the virtual world. Hosoda had the opportunity to condemn hate and violence or at the very least create an anime that is a social commentary on the state of bullying and domestic violence in the 21st century. Instead he just leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. Maybe I’m harsh, but I would like a more concrete social commentary. It would have been better to remove the social commentary than to have something that is incomplete and lacks any real depth. As a viewer, I couldn’t help but see it as performative. Cyberbullying is a serious issue, and I’m so disappointed that I failed to explore its implications. We all know bullying is bad. And if that is the only real message you can convey in a two-hour-long movie, just scrap the performative social commentary. As a director, it is your job to make sure that the message of your film is properly conveyed, and unfortunately, I do not think he did. If this movie just focused on music and aesthetics and removed any social commentary, I genuinely think it would have been perfect. We don’t always need a powerful message. Sometimes it is ok to mindlessly consume media and think, “Wow, that was nice!” Nothing more, nothing less.
This movie also tries to tackle the issue of domestic violence. Let me preface by saying that I fully believe that domestic violence is a serious issue, and there should be more media coverage that raises awareness and condemns it. That being said, I’m not sure Hosoda did either of those things. While I can respect and even appreciate the director’s attempt at tackling such a poignant topic, I have a problem with opening wounds and not providing care to treat them. Domestic abuse is not something that should be used as a means to further the plot. I am disappointed that the movie ends without a real resolution and the fact that Suzu put herself in an extremely dangerous situation. Throughout the movie, we see that Suzu is obsessed with learning the meaning behind the dragon’s unique character skin.
In the beginning, the scars appear to be symbolic; the scars are the manifestation of the cyberbullying the dragon experiences in “U.” However, the viewer later learns that the scars are real and are the result of actual physical abuse. Suzu discovers that the boy behind the dragon avatar, Kei, is a victim of parental domestic abuse. And while Suzu is justifiably upset, she is just a teenager with no connections to anyone or anything that can make Kei’s situation safer. What was the significance of being thrown into a toxic situation where she is just as defenseless as Kai and his brother, if not more? In a perfect world, Suzu saves Kei and his brother from their father’s rage, and they all live happily ever after. But that is not the ending we get.
While I think the director had good intentions, I have a problem with how the movie ends. As I mentioned previously, there is no resolution. Kei’s father assaults Suzu, Kei, and Angel. He does so until they realize that they will not leave each other’s side. And while the moment serves as a staunch reminder of the importance of community, it does nothing to address the severity of the situation. Their day just assaulted a random girl off the internet and stormed off before acknowledging the harm he caused. Does Kei make it out of his abusive environment? Are Kei and his little brother (Angel) okay, or if child services have been involved? The movie addresses the fact that the father can get away with his domestic abuse because he is extremely wealthy and influential. Adding that friends and family know that the father abuses his children and plead with him to stop, yet still, the abuse continues because he is untouchable. However, it begs the question, if the father won’t listen to those who know and respect him, why would he listen to Suzu, a random teenage girl from the internet?
I wish I could go back in time and stop watching the movie at the 80-minute mark. Ending on a cliffhanger or not finishing at all, really anything would have been better than the movie’s actual ending. For the reasons previously mentioned, this movie was SUCH a letdown. Because there was no real plot, it was difficult to follow the story, and anything meaningful the director wanted to convey was lost in the chaos of his storyline. Furthermore, the character development was awful. Essentially non-existent. Characters were introduced, and side stories were explored, but none of it really advanced the overall story of “Belle.” The sole existence of these characters was to “support” Suzu and serve as a mask for several plot holes.
Ultimately this movie was visually stunning but poorly written and lacked direction. “Belle” was a two-hour film with gorgeous animation and an ear-worm of a soundtrack (both in English and Japanese), but it lacked plot and good storytelling. While this movie received a 14-minute standing ovation, I can’t say that it was a good film. There are so many better anime films to watch, and I highly recommend just listening to the soundtrack. I rate this film a 5/10. If you’re looking for an animated film with flashy graphics and a beautiful soundtrack, watch this film. But if you’re looking for something with depth or a critique of the internet industry, this is not the film for you. “Belle” is a great example of “No thoughts, just vibes!” However, if Hosoda had worked with a team of writers, or even just a co-director he could bounce his ideas off of, this movie would have been infinitely better.