As regular readers know, I didn’t walk into Belle with a whole lot of experience with previous movies from Mamoru Hosoda. I had seen a couple of his movies, but not all of them. Despite this, the hype behind this movie was real. While writing previous articles leading up to the stateside release of Belle, I was pounded by critical sites, including Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic, giving the movie almost universally high scores. Now that I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I have to agree that yes, this is one of the most visually stunning movies I’ve ever seen. I just wish I could say the same thing about the story and writing.
The movie starts with an introduction to the virtual world of U where they promise you may not be able to start over in real life, but you can definitely start over in this world so long as you don’t get on the bad side of the governing bodies who keep the virtual residents mostly safe and happy.
The other thing that happens in these first few minutes is a concert featuring a freckled, pink-haired beauty belting out quite the catchy pop song with millions of adoring fans dropping everything to check out the performance.
Cut to an average Japanese school in an average Japanese town and we meet Suzu, who is a young girl still trying to cope with the death of her mother when she was a child. So traumatized by the incident is Suzu that she can no longer even sing out loud without vomiting because it reminds her of doing the same thing with her mother when she was young.
That’s when Suzu enters the world of U and what is the very first thing she does upon entering? Sing, of course. This is the first of many points where I was left asking myself the question “why, though?” She knows she can’t do it in reality. Why would the very first thing she does in a virtual world be to belt out a song in what is essentially the general chat of the world?
After singing for a few seconds and gathering attention from a couple of people, she leaves the world and goes to sleep with only two followers, a stranger who caught her performance and one of her best friends who is determined to turn her into an internet superstar. Over the course of the next few days (possibly longer or shorter because the movie doesn’t really specify), Suzu/Belle gains millions of followers and starts putting on virtual concerts thanks to her friend spreading her song around online on her absolutely ridiculously high-tech computer set up.
One time though, her concert is interrupted by a beast who carries scars and bruises on his back. Sensing that there is something more to this virtual avatar than just a troll out to make trouble, Belle goes into seclusion in order to find out more about this monster and what his story is.
Belle has so many things going for it, including absolutely breathtaking visuals, beautiful character designs, and a fantastic soundtrack (note: I saw this movie dubbed in English), I just wish that I could say that the story is equal to the packaging.
The main through-line of the movie is the pursuit of this beast and the attempt to put him down as a nuisance who only wants to break the rules and cause trouble for people. It’s almost as though the movie is trying to say that hardcore internet trolls are all just actually hurting inside and are just misunderstood. This is fair on some level, but you also have to admit that some people are just plain rude jerks, particularly online.
The biggest issue with this movie is in the final act. While I won’t go into details because of massive spoilers, I will say that the climax of the movies offers little to no real resolution. The love interest who figures out the real identity of Suzu/Belle remains just a friend, the beast with the troubled home life seemingly remains in a troubled home life, those who flocked from all over the internet to watch Belle move on to someone else, and it almost feels as though the entire movie never actually happened except for some growth for the main character, which we get to see in the closing moments.
Belle is an amazing movie to behold, to be certain. The visuals of the virtual world are just plain stunning. You can certainly argue that the homage to Beauty and the Beast is heavy-handed in many places, but it’s such a small part of the movie that it’s easy to ignore that. If Belle is the movie that Mamoru Hosoda has worked his entire career to create, sadly he still has a lot more work to do and higher peaks to reach, because this movie is not his best effort.