A Beautifully Executed Familiar Tale That Fumbles the Landing

Beauty and the Beast may be a tale as old as time, but that makes it all the more appealing for every filmmaker and storyteller to try and put their own spin on it. In this case, the result is Studio Chizu’s Belle, written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda, known for previous features like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and 2018’s Miral. Highly anticipated in the lead-up to its release, not only because of Hosada’s name but also because of his critical comments directed at Hayao Miyazaki, Belle is a 21st-century twist on a familiar tale with beautiful execution that fumbles the landing.

Taking place in a town in modern-day Japan, Belle is the story of highschooler Suzu who lives a double life as the most famous singer in the world, Belle, in the virtual world of U. By day she’s a normal schoolgirl, still mourning the death of her mother years after the event, with a few friends and nothing remarkable going on in her life. After her best friend Hiro gets her into U, she discovers that, as Belle, she can sing again, something which she hasn’t been able to do since her mother died. After the Dragon, aka the Beast, interrupts one of Belle’s biggest concerts yet, she develops a fascination and a love for him which causes the two to be drawn closer, even as a group of virtual vigilantes becomes obsessed with unmasking and destroying the Dragon.

The majority of the movie focuses on Suzu and her character growth and development, with subplots including her crush on a childhood friend and fellow schoolgirl Ruka’s crush on an incredibly dense classmate. Suzu’s character arc shows her going from being shy and unhappy in the real world to vibrant and excited in U, and slowly merging the two halves of herself together, with help from the Dragon and her real-world friends. Unfortunately, the focus on Suzu’s character is to the detriment of everyone else’s, as she is the only one who experiences any real growth, other than the Dragon, whose character arc feels rushed and underdeveloped, with his identity not being revealed until almost the end of the movie. While the supporting cast is fun and all have their places, they feel more like convenient plot points for Suzu’s growth than well-rounded characters of their own.

While the film borrows many plot points and even small details like body language from the classic Disney movie that were not in the original fairy tale, the focus on Suzu and the uniqueness of the digital setting helps to keep the film fresh and really sets it apart from other adaptations, both animated and live-action.

As expected of Studio Chizu, the animation is simply gorgeous. What struck me the most was the bold difference between the flat, 2D animation in the real world and the 3D, more textured animation in U. While it’s not true 3D, and the art style does stay the same, it helps to emphasize the difference between the worlds. The color palette in U is also much brighter and more vibrant, with richer color and bold, bizarre character designs – after all, if you’re not you, why would you have to stay looking like a human? Still, the small details that transfer between the characters’ real-world selves and their virtual identities are extremely impressive, from obvious things like Suzu’s freckles or Ruka’s saxophone to more subtle but just as significant things like the small, bat-angel’s color palette being the key to his identity.

The acting and talent behind Belle are also truly wonderful, particularly Kaho Nakamura as both Belle and Suzu. Her singing is absolutely amazing and truly spellbinding, making the character’s virtual popularity completely believable. Unfortunately, talent like Ryo Narita feels wasted on the mostly monotone Shinobu, and Koji Yakusho as Suzu’s father. Takeru Satouh, most well-known as the live-action Himura Kenshin, also delivers an excellent performance as the Dragon.

Sadly, for what should have been a truly outstanding film, Belle does have a few drawbacks. The pacing is uneven and extremely slow in the first act while the backstory is played out in flashback, feeling like it’s dragging when it’s not even the main portion of the movie. Additionally, Belle chooses to tackle some heavy themes in the last third of the movie but fumbles them badly, leaving the fate of two characters ambiguous at best, and potentially sending a poor message to audiences depending on how it’s taken. This is a jarring contrast to the rest of the cast and their unambiguously happy endings, as well as a bumpy landing from a smooth overall story arc. Less seriously, there’s an unusual moment where a high school girl is said to have a crush on a teacher, and going by his picture he’s old enough to be her grandfather. It’s headscratching if not a touch disturbing in context, as it never comes up again and so was just a bizarre stylistic choice.

Overall, Belle is a lovely experience but the slow start and failure to stick the landing correctly leaves a bad impression. Still, for those who are fans of the original fairy tale or those who enjoy virtual universe stories, Belle will be a decent way to pass the time.

SCORE: 7/10

As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 7 equates to “Good”. A successful piece of entertainment that is worth checking out, but it may not appeal to everyone.

Disclosure: The critic watched a screener for ComingSoon’s Belle review. 

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