It’s a tale as old as time, but it’s as true as it can be. However, in the world of cyberspace, truth is an enigma, a myriad of fragments of information all meshing with the constant question of what is real and what is a lie. What is staged and what is authentic. In a cyber universe unbound by the rules of the real world, Belle, the latest feature from acclaimed director Mamoru Hosoda, poses a striking statement. In a world where the digital universe and the real world collide, the truth still exists. It may be difficult to see and maybe even difficult to hear, given the lies and hypocrisy that exist, and the secrets that humans keep in plain sight.
The truth exists in vulnerability, a risky and potentially damaging expression in an age of reactionary pundits and negative power-abusing users. In truth, there is the freedom to express, and perhaps, unyielding emotion to heal, to unite, and the strength to potentially save someone from the darkness within themselves and discover their own strength. Majestic, beautiful, and driven by its amazing cast, Belle is one of 2022’s best films to date, one of the best animated features, and a great way to start off animation in 2022.
For those of you that don’t know the premise of the movie Belle, it follows Suzu; A 17-year-old high school girl, who is shy, timid, and awkward, but she hasn’t always been like that. Growing up in the countryside of Japan, she had a strong connection to her mother. This all changes during a tragic moment that costs Suzu’s mom her life. These events cause many issues with Suzu, along with her social life and her favorite activities in her life.
Thanks to her friend Hiroka, Suzu decides to step into a brand new VR World, unlike anything she experienced before, so advanced, a headset isn’t even required. This is a system that bills itself as a new beginning for its users. This new system is called “U.” Reading her biometric data, which includes her brainwave patterns and physical data, U creates her avatar. From there the story goes on for a wild ride!
Belle immediately captures the attention of the viewers’ eyes and transports them into a viewing experience unlike any other. It’s a majestic, and awe-inspiring visual poem, a tale of the beauty of ourselves, both in the real world and the digital world. It’s a telling of our newfound expressions and profound impact as we further embrace technology and the instinctual desire to connect, but also the unifying power and unrelenting purity of song and expression. Belle is an experience that weaves its song in your heart and warms it with its themes of liberating oneself through the incredible parts of ourselves we have yet to discover.
It’s impossible to begin to talk about Belle without mentioning its visual and audio presentation, which is a magnificent realization of a new digital frontier, emblazoned in heavenly gold. The digital realm of U is vast, incredible, and awe-inspiring. Users are an assortment of creatures, some looking like Digimon and some appearing as various construct and fictional organisms, perhaps as small nods to Digimon: The Movie and Summer Wars.
Swirls of data interweave this cyber metropolis. At times, it feels as if the city is giving a tip of the hat to Steven Lisenberger and his vision for 1982’s Tron, a film with a similar setting. It’s a place of liberation, as Belle states, and it’s lined with rivers of data, grand monuments of celebration, and pulsating hearts of billions of citizens. Soon enough Belle appears, a dashing and vibrant virtual Idol bustling with flowering, singing atop a blue whale with radio speakers on its back, unapologetically expressing herself to the five billion users of U. This introduction establishes the strange and fascinating designs of U, all reflective of the personalities of the user.
In a juxtaposition of the grand golden vision of U, there is Kochi prefecture, located on the island of Shikoku. Belle uses this prefecture, Suzu’s home, as a means to describe the mood through photo-realistic illustration. There are moments where it feels like a postcard moving to life in real-time, but it serves as a great vehicle to set the emotional feelings of our cast. The stillness of the water, the glow of the sunset, the rising of stormy skies, the quietness of a countryside town, and the coldness of a snowy forest. It’s a quietness to collect feelings, but also, to see where U impact lies.
Audio & Voice Acting
Not many movies can match their visuals to their audio and acting presentation, but Belle accomplishes this formidable task greatly, placing the shoulders of the movie on voice actress Kylie McNeil. The 19-year-old voice actress debuts with an array of innocence and power, a ferocity of strength, and the heart of a lion. Kylie excels at being the Suzu, who works to rediscover her song and herself, and Belle, the virtual idol uniting all of U with her harmonious voice and lyrics.
When the story progresses, Kylie taps into the pulse of the moment, as an actress and as a singer, embodying an idol in a virtual world and a young girl in the real world, almost terrified as to what to do next, given this sudden discovery of strength. For Kylie, this is a masterful skill, clearly brought about through determination, discipline, and conviction. The likes of Utada Hikaru and Adele are brought to mind when hearing Kylie sing as Belle, but she easily embraces this unique world and story and owns it. To understand this position and duality, to give it life is a challenging skill, but Kylie accomplishes this role with grace and heartfelt elegance. Simply put, this role was made for her and she goes all in, creating an unforgettable performance. Wherever Kylie goes in her career, it’s bound to be masterful, and I am excited for where she goes next.
Kylie is only the tip of the musical performance of Belle as composers Taisei Iwasaki Ludvig Forssell, Yuta Bandoh, Miho Sakai, and Millenium parade give Belle a spirit, a soul, for us to hear and understand, weaving the desire to belong, to be free, to find the commitment of another human, and to heal through the power of song. Belle wraps and weaves its music through the emotions of its characters and its settings, then towards an audience. It’s a message that is understood and a message that resonates. This may be a strange comparison, but if one can recall the soaring sensation of hearing Phil Collins in the soundtrack to Disney’s Tarzan, it’s a very similar feeling. Indeed, what I am saying is that this is essentially on the caliber of Disney’s Tarzan, and perhaps much more.
The rest of the supporting cast does a fine job as well. Hiroka (Jessica DiCicco), the nerdy best friend with a pulse on all things “U” provides that quirky humor and translation for Suzu as she maintains her life as Belle and a student in Japan. Jessica DiCicco provides that elation that is needed and works well off Kyle’s chemistry as Suzu. Shinobu (Manny Jacinto) also has a solid role as a guardian who also grows around Suzu, serving as a moment of calm. Trans actress Hunter Schaefer provides an interesting viewpoint as Ruka, being a popular girl that is drawn to Belle and to Suzu. Manny Jacinto is Shinjiro, a very animated sports enthusiast that is also seeking his own goals and dreams.
One character I would have liked to see more of is Justin, voiced by Chase Crawford, who presides as the authoritarian, Justin, Leader of Justice. He has a unique arc and philosophy of maintaining order on the internet, and while his bits are great, I really wish we could have seen more of him. By the end of the film, all the characters surrounding Suzu have solid character development arcs.
Of course, as the name implies, Belle wears its inspirations from the fairy tale very much so on its sleeve, from the look of The Beast to the imagery and use of flowers and The Beast’s castle. The story may feel familiar, which it should, being the fairy tale was authored in 1756. For the knowledgeable, they may roll their eyes at the somewhat unoriginality of the core formula of the story. After all, when one thinks of Bell, they immediately remember the young French village person in a blue and white outfit, working hard in her countryside town while being irked by a big-muscled hotshot.
Even gamers can pick up references to the old fairy tale, especially in 2008’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, which includes several direct mentions, and even features a deadly team of cyborgs: The Beauty and the Beast Corps. However, it’s never what you have, or what you choose to have, but what you do with it, and Belle absolutely gives a familiar tale new roots to grow into.
Everything Is Not As It Seems
The fairy tale’s core themes included topics we have heard before, such as not judging someone on their outside characteristic, and that there is more to a person beneath than what the surface says. In the concept of Belle, this works extremely well, given how U presents itself as a digital utopia and a new beginning. Every user is presented as an entirely different creature, reflective of their biometrics and behaviors in the real world. There are those that pursue a new beginning, new friends, fun, or perhaps some ulterior motive for attention and fame.
One of the core themes to Belle is that no one is who they appear to be. Even Suzu states when speaking with her best friend “I guess everyone has a secret to hide.” There are obvious nods to both the fairy tale and Disney’s classic. Belle’s signature outfit is bursting with flowers, an obvious and effective visual cue to the core fairy tale. Belle even subverts the expected tropes and beats of the original fairy tale, providing new ideas, but does have time to clearly give a tip of the hat to Disney, as well as say ‘ yea, watch what we can do.” Belle doesn’t become that traditional romantic story, instead becomes something else with an entirely new meaning, breaking away from the core structure of the original tale. In fact, there was a moment where I felt that I could see what was coming, only to be completely surprised in the film’s final act, much to my surprise and respect.
A Journey Of Rediscovery
Another core theme is this sensation of rediscovery and finding strength through the online world, and it’s something I’ve witnessed, as a gamer and convention goer. When my grandmother passed, I took to games like Kingdom Hearts II to cope with the loss and discovered a tale of heroism, devotion to brotherhood, and a love that transcends entire worlds. In games like FFXIV 3.4 million players play daily, customizing their attire and combat stats, and forging not only a community to play with but to socialize and network.
Furry fandoms use VR chat to express their fursonas and parts of themselves that they haven’t done before. It’s a familiar tale, but one done incredibly well in Belle. Belle becomes a tale and cheer of that expression, how technology, as spiteful and horrendous it can be, can help us discover our own truths and strengths, and perhaps even use that to push through the pain and find a way back from it. Belle is also a cautionary tale of censorship, internet policing, and how the secrets we work hard to keep, are oftentimes in plain sight, which may not be a good thing.
Belle’s execution of this familiar story into new grounds is striking, arresting, and irresistibly heart-pounding. Between Hosoda’s vision and Kylie’s musical performance, Belle becomes a tremendous story of love and hope in a digitally dark age, and the story and music deserve as much merit. If it were up to me, I’d put the movie and music up for nominations in visual and musical achievement. In a scene that will likely live rent-free in my head forever, the expected ballroom dance occurs, seeing Belle and The Beast ascend into the digital starry sky, with the track “Lend Me Your Voice” echoing and booming throughout the moment. The sheer vulnerability of this moment and the fever pitch of feeling sweeps over the senses. Not even the coldest hearts can resist their heart swelling at this moment, and perhaps, some tears are shed as the two ascend to the digital heavens. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
Belle is unforgettable but not perfect, and even a movie with this brilliant vision will have some setbacks. The biggest grievance is that there is simply not enough time to spend in this world and with these characters. Although 2 hours is a long length for a film of this sort. It’s a visualized idea with so much more to be seen, and yet we get a lot at the same time. Viewers never get a chance to see more of U and how areas like the mentioned fighting arena worked. They also never get a view on how rivals see and compete with Bell.
The Justice team, while having a few moments and interesting designs, don’t get a lot of time in Belle and don’t exactly get an arc, providing an interesting idea and distraction but not being as integral to the plot as they could have. Additionally, some ideas were not explored, such as how Suzu’s father copes with the grief of losing his wife and feeling Suzu’s disconnect. His arc could have presented rather interesting views and ideas of grief in the digital world, but this, and the aforementioned issues, would have to expand the film by about thirty minutes. Should there be a sequel that further explores this world and its themes? I’d see it in a heartbeat. It’s likely that won’t be the case, and if so, I’m enthralled with what we have.
Belle is a milestone and revolution in Japanese animation and animated storytelling. A riveting musical that sings across all barriers, Belle is an experience I won’t soon forget. While I wish we had more time with our cast and the world depicted, I’m more than thrilled I got to experience this. In a world where technology has been harmed by lies and corporate misgivings, Belle is a technologically human tale of hope across cyberspace, discovering ourselves and our abilities to help others. We are unmistakably moving into the future with virtual worlds. It is my sincere hope we take lessons from movies like Belle to lend our voices to others and bring people together.
There is hope for the technology of today if one chooses positive and expressive vulnerability over the toxicity that dwells in us all. To embrace our vulnerabilities and use them to unite to heal the hurt and the pained. Thanks to everyone that worked on Belle. To the reader, support Belle however you can, and remember to sing. Let your heart soar. Sing forever.