While there are obvious examples of optimism and idealism to be found in science fiction, I think it’s fair to say that the speculative tales that gain the most mainstream attention are cautionary ones. We prefer our mirrors black, our scanners darkly, our nators termi. Or, if not ‘prefer’ per se, that’s the default we’ve come to expect. Decades of media have conditioned audiences with the viewpoint that the shrinking gulf between our physical selves and our virtual lives is disastrous. Movies like Ready Player One may be aimed at audiences at ease in the digital age, but the perspective is clearly that of a finger-wagging stentorian who thinks those damn kids need to put their phones down once in a while, and clear off his lawn for good measure (love ya, Steve).
Part of what makes Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle, now available on home media and VOD, so striking is that the film broaches the Internet and online living from a place of curiosity and possibility, rather than leaping to every worst case scenario as part of a morality play about The Folly of Those Darn Youths. Hosoda’s vision of a world just slightly further down the road than our own is clear eyed about the pitfalls and dangers of tying your identity to a digital self, but that doesn’t preclude the opportunities for expression, connection, and liberation that come with stepping outside of your own skin.
Other things that make Belle so striking: How gorgeous the animation is, how funny and charming it is, how much it overflows with empathy for every single person it puts on screen, how energetic it is, did I mention how gorgeous it is?, the multiple spectacular musical numbers, how playful it is with the animated form, how playfully and leaps and dodges around the expected plot points, and then of course there’s just how jaw-droppingly gorgeous it is.
If you’re not familiar with Hosoda’s other work, the easiest (if somewhat wrong-headed) summation would be to describe him as the heir apparent to Hayao Miyazaki and the specific tone of sci-fi/fantasy that Studio Ghibli has been purveying to extraordinary success for several decades now. It’s not a comparison that Hosoda endorses. In fact, Hosoda was supposed to direct Howl’s Moving Castle but left the project over insurmountable creative differences.
Since that departure, Hosoda has honed his own particular animation style and creative voice, becoming more confident and more expansive with each subsequent film. His last film, Mirai, gets described as a time travel adventure, but it largely shrugs off traditional narrative in favor of time-slipping dream logic with more in common with The Little Prince than Back to the Future.
Belle may seem more traditional out of the gate, as Hosoda cannily riffs on universal notes of teen angst filtered through common fairy tale archetypes. But the film is not simply running the Disney classics through a TRON filter and calling it a day. Belle seems shaggy but is actually tight as a drum, comes across as slapdash before revealing itself to be surgical, its every tangent and apparent side-quest perfectly composed so that when the moment comes for the full picture to snap into focus, it is equal parts devastating surprise and perfectly fitted to everything that came before.
But, OK, I’ve been building hype up long enough, what is Belle actually about?
In an unspecified year not too distant from our current one, high school girl Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) feels cut off and isolated from everyone around her. Ever since her mother died trying to rescue a terrified child from a raging river, Suzu has put distance between herself and everyone else in the world except for her permanently snarky best friend Hiro (Lilas Ikuta). Worst of all (well, maybe not worse than the mom being dead but go with me here), the trauma of losing her mother has led to a mental block keeping Suzu from writing and singing songs, which used to be the outlet through which she best expressed herself. Now, if she tries to sing even while alone, her body seizes up and she gets sick.
All that changes when Suzu signs up for “U”, a massively popular virtual reality where “you” control an avatar tailored to represent your personality while disguising your identity. In this new digital body, Suzu takes the name ‘Belle’ and discovers that for the first time in years she can sing freely.
Even more surprising than her being able to sing: People being interested in listening! ‘Belle’ rapidly becomes a popular sensation within “U”. The only interruption in this rocket to success occurs when ‘Belle’s’ concert is disrupted by the Beast (Takeru Satoh, Kenshin himself!), a rage-fueled, brutally scarred monster who treats the world of “U” and everything/everyone in it as his personal punching bag.
The Beast is loathed and feared by the denizens of “U”, but Suzu finds herself inexorably drawn to the pain clearly radiating from behind that digital skin, leading her and Hiro to begin conducting their own investigation into who this Beast is in real life, even as the governing forces within “U” amass their powers to blast him out of reality.
Just when you start to think that the Beauty and the Beast name-checks were mere window dressing, Hosoda goes ahead and gives you ‘Belle’ exploring mysterious hidden passages that lead to a crumbling castle where there may or may not be a ballroom where a beauty and a beast may or may not engage in a romantical type dance like in that one movie whose name escapes me.
But just when you start getting comfortable with this reworking of a well-worn tale, Hosoda zags again. It’d be a crime to reveal too much about the larger game being played here, but suffice to say that Hosoda plays certain cards much earlier than you might expect, building to a climax that is nothing like what I would have guessed the endgame of the film would look like.
Belle is spellbinding enough that even if the various mysteries had come to underwhelming ends, the movie’s world would still be worth revisiting. Hosoda establishes entirely different visual languages within the real world and “U” (with assistance from legendary Irish studio Cartoon Saloon [the magicians behind Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and Wolfwalkers] for the backgrounds in “U”), with the virtual world offering unlimited opportunities for captivating character designs, stunning vistas, and zero gravity set pieces for music and action alike.
Oh yeah, and lest we forget, Belle is a musical down to its bones. The songs are not simply catchy distractions to the main event, they are the event itself. Character, story, and theme are progressed every single time Suzu sings, and unlike many of the Disney classics that Hosoda is playing with, Belle doesn’t wimp out and drop the music when the third act comes around. Music is the only way for Suzu to truly be herself, and so when the climax calls on her to lay her heart and soul on the line like never before, music is the only way to get to that truth.
This, ultimately, is the secret behind the optimism and empathy driving Belle and Hosoda’s conception of the online world. Beneath the avatars, beneath the carefully constructed veneers that we present to the world for our online selves, there are real people, with real broken hearts and wounded souls, with real needs to connect, to express, to love and be loved. Hosoda argues with this film that people cannot help but forge connections to one another, and that those connections are no less real or meaningful because they happen through an Internet connection rather than in person.
Belle is not ignorant to the ways in which these same channels might be used in service of the worst of humanity. When the film broaches that darkness, it is blunt and ugly in a way that is all the more shocking in contrast to the loopy visuals and soaring music.
But Hosoda refuses to let darkness overwhelm the light. If the Internet can be a place that reinforces cruelty and bitterness, it is also a place where miracles can still be found. Belle argues, with such conviction that it feels impossible to disagree, that the Internet, for all its failings, is still a place where a voiceless girl might still be able to sing. Where a doomed beast might yet still be saved. And that’s worth believing in. Worth fighting for.