Ever since her mother died, Suzu has struggled to fit in. Naturally inclined towards shyness, she withdraws from every social situation – at least, in the real world. For in the virtual reality known as “U”, Suzu is “Belle”, a beloved idol with millions of followers. But just as U can be a place for you to become your best self, so too can it reveal a hidden darkness, as Belle discovers when she meets the infamous fighter known as the Beast.
Although I haven’t kept up with his newer output, in the past I’ve had an enjoyable time watching Mamoru Hosoda’s work – in fact, I recently rewatched The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and found that it still stood up as an enjoyable piece of entertainment. With that in mind, it seemed only right to give Belle a try when I spotted it on an in-flight entertainment line-up. Unfortunately, it seemed that I was destined to be disappointed.
As you might guess from the title and the plot summary, Belle is inspired by the story of Beauty and the Beast. In fact, several of the scenes involving Belle and the Beast are clearly visually inspired by the 1991 Disney movie. On top of this, Hosoda has thrown in some trademark plot elements from his earlier works – virtual reality, awkward teenage love situations, and of course a misfit protagonist. Rather than blending together to make something remarkable, however, the result is much the same as a child might get if they mixed together all the colours in their paintbox.
The heroine of the piece is Suzu, an awkward misfit who has never really recovered from the tragic death of her mother some years previously. In particular, although she loves music and regularly attends a local choir, she is unable to sing out loud – at one point even throwing up when she tries to sing to herself.
Everything changes for Suzu when she logs into U, an artificial reality where your virtual avatar is imbued with your deepest hidden talents. After logging into U and singing an angsty ballad, Suzu’s avatar, Belle, becomes a virtual singing sensation.
Just going by what I’ve said already, Belle could be a perfectly serviceable film – nothing groundbreaking, to be sure, but at least a solid foundation for a couple of hours of entertainment. Unfortunately, even at this early stage, the film seems determined to underperform.
Let’s start with U, the “yet another virtual reality” from the man who brought us OZ in Summer Wars. For the most part, it just appears to be some sort of town square where everyone’s avatar hangs out, with some skyscrapers in the distance – hardly an inviting environment. As the film progresses, we see some other locations, such as the arena where Belle gives her concert, or the castle where Beast lives, but it’s never clear how these locations are connected, or how you get to them. For that matter, there are several points in the film where characters are pursued or captured by the antagonists within U, and yet no one thinks to escape by just logging out. This isn’t Sword Art Online – all users are free to come and go as they please!
As far as the plot goes, what we get is essentially two weak stories, loosely woven together. The first main thread is classic Hosoda stuff involving the usual angst and difficulties of being a teenager. Unfortunately, the characters are so paper-thin that it’s impossible to care about any of them. Take, for example, Suzu’s childhood friend and crush, Shinobu, the most popular boy in the school. He has appointed himself as Shinobu’s protector and guardian, which seems to amount to hovering around in the background of various scenes saying very little. Or Suzu’s choir, a group of older women whose main contribution is to crack jokes and generally be supportive when the plot requires it. With such flimsy characterisation, the moments when the film tries to tug at your heartstrings are stripped bare of all depth. I wasn’t sure whether to be amused or annoyed at the film’s shamelessly blatant attempts at emotional manipulation.
The other storyline concerns the Beast and the mystery of his real life identity. In the real world, the internet is so full of jerks and idiots that one more angsty misfit blowing off steam is unlikely to raise much of a stir, but here in U, he is apparently the only troublemaker anyone cares about. In fact, even though U isn’t supposed to need any moderation (really?), a group of self-appointed allies of justice have made it their duty to be the film’s antagonists, with the goal of deanonymizing Beast and anyone who associates with him.
While the reaction to his presence seems disproportionate, there’s no escaping the fact that Beast is indeed an unlikeable jerk, and that once again the film’s questionable attempts to present him as Just Misunderstood and A Good Guy Really will only make you warm to him even less. However, never let it be said that this film is scared to be unsubtle at trawling for an emotional response. It turns out that the Beast is not in fact one of Suzu’s real life friends in disguise, but is in fact a fourteen-year-old boy named Kei, who is trying to protect himself and his brother from an abusive father. For some reason, the solution to this horrible situation is for Suzu to track down Kei, rush to his hometown, and somehow repel said abusive father through the power of friendship. And I’m sure that after she went home again, they all lived happily ever after.
While I probably should make allowances for having watched it on a plane, I found Belle to be pretty unimpressive on the visual front as well. The real world is lacklustre and drab, and includes such pinnacles of animation as two characters standing still for so long that you might begin to worry that you’ve accidentally paused the video. The world of U is meant to be colourful and festive in contrast, but the CG animation looks more ugly than appealing. Animation-wise, the best moments are when the film is shamelessly stealing its set pieces from Beauty and the Beast.
Since this is a film about expressing your true self through song, Belle at least manages to make a decent showing on the musical front. There’s nothing that massively stands out here, and Belle’s solos are a bit too “overproduced angsty teen sings synth pop”, the soundtrack is well-produced overall, and generally achieves what it sets out to do.
Devoid of the charm and emotional impact of Mamoru Hosoda’s earlier work, Belle turned out to be an unexpected disappointment – a hollow shell with no real substance. It may have got fourteen standing ovations at a cinematic screening, but when I watched this film, I remained resolutely seated.