Very rarely do I encounter a film so gripping, beautiful, and compelling that I feel like reality was what I experienced in the theater. Belle challenges the very characteristics that define a movie as “animation” in the first place; the story creates characters with more substance than the flesh-and-blood humans you see on a daily basis. Belle‘s emotional appeal tells what feels like a lifetime of stories in a runtime of only a few hours. By watching all of its characters grow, suffer, love, and sing, anyone will walk out of a theater imagining bright colors, vibrant music, and the relationships they’d love them to accompany. Belle markets itself as a story inspired by Beauty and the Beast. Personally, I think this comparison is akin to saying a Michelin-star chef’s meal was “inspired” by the farm it was sourced from. This is a film that transcends its inspiration to become a story infinitely its own.
Belle is too good a story to spoil so this will be a spoiler-free review. Even without diving into the story, just an understanding of the feelings this movie creates should more than communicate its quality.
Who and What is Belle?
Belle, from award-winning director Mamoru Hosada and Studio Chizu, follows a girl growing up in a technologically advanced age with all of the problems and issues that come alongside that technology. Without giving any spoilers, here are some key details to frame the story: Protagonist Suzu is a shy, unassuming high school girl living in a rural area. She has to take multiple busses and trains to get to school and the landscape surrounding her home is natural and pastoral. Suzu lost her mother at a young age and with her the ability to sing. She began to close herself off from the world and even her father, becoming less of her music-loving self as she grew older.
One day, Suzu enters a virtual world called “U” and finds escape as her avatar, a beautiful woman only bearing slight resemblance to her. Suzu finds that in this virtual world she can sing without issue and as naturally as she’d been wanting to for years. She quickly gains a following and becomes popular around the world. During her journey into stardom, she learns of a monstrous “beast” in the world of “U” and begins a journey to learn more about him and herself.
Suzu’s avatar is called Belle; “Bell,” her username and the literal definition of her name (Suzu / 鈴) becomes “Belle” when her fans decide her name should reflect her beauty. This alone is exemplary of the sort of message the movie focuses on. Every person has different sides and parts of themselves. We expose ourselves to some and hide ourselves to others. We consume, digest, and respond to the identities of others.
A lot of people will find it quite refreshing to see Belle‘s particular narrative around identity from the eyes of a mostly adolescent cast of characters. While most of them are teens and the protagonist is a young woman, the usual tropes of forced romance and ultimate reliance are entirely absent in Belle.
A Visually Stunning Ensemble
Visually, Belle uses several techniques to both enhance its setting and contrast the virtual and real worlds it takes place in. In the “real” world, the film uses hand drawn animation. Rural landscapes are bright and detailed behind fluidly moving characters. Precise storyboarding clearly comes into play here. In the world of “U,” Belle manages to transmit the feel of a virtual, video-game-like world through the use of 3D animation. The story often switches between the setting of “U” and the physical world, allowing the audience to slowly associate similar elements of each with one another. Belle tells a story of a person’s core, their origin, and seeing the different forms that manifests in makes for an incredibly warm experience.
The world of “U” is drawn in a fantastic, infinite, creative way with bright colors and fantastic arrangements of shapes and structures. Belle takes advantage of this setting to create fantastic, sprawling scenes. The virtual world feels filled with a sort of aether and its massively complex structures are almost reminiscent of the cosmological models of Plato, Aristotle, or Copernicus.
Even more, each character has elements to their design that are unique not just to themselves, but to their real-life appearances and respective avatars in “U.” As a voiceover in the story says, “You can’t start over in reality, but you can start over in U.” Despite that, the film made me question whether we really start over at all when we craft new versions of ourselves. Belle refracts the core of each character through the setting in which they happen to be. In doing so, it constructs an elaborate mosaic of people that look different in different realities but feel the same all the while.
Music to the Ears and a Gem in Belle
The music is where Belle clearly stakes its claim as a masterpiece. From the first notes of the opening scenes, I felt chills go from my spine into every bone in my body. Since leaving the theater, I haven’t gone more than a few hours without turning to the soundtrack. Coming home from the theater, I was so distracted by my listening that I missed my station by five and ended up miles from home. Truly it’s that good.
Moreover, the soundtrack and score to Belle acts alongside its incredibly imagery to enhance both the story and characters. Because the substance of the narrative centers around music, songs and melody’s play an important part to the growth of characters. Like a piece of music, different emotional elements to Suzu and her friends find themselves preserved and re-performed across time. Just like hearing a childhood song as an adult, music in Belle acts as a signpost to the audience. Songs help to identify the continuity of themes and emotions. Whether you want to or not, the music guides you alongside the story and makes sure you keep pace with it.
Truly, Belle will claim and tug at your heartstrings. Personally, I find myself lamenting the fact that I will never again be able to see it for the first time. In any case, words and praise can’t do a story like this justice. Don’t just go out and see it. Let yourself experience it.