It is an event, like the Wachowski’s returning to the Matrix, but Mamoru Hosoda creating another virtual world of avatars is exponentially more interesting. In Hosoda’s Summer Wars, the events within the fictional online OZ held potentially disastrous implications for the real, physical world. Technically, Susu Naito never confronts an imminent apocalypse when she enters the virtual “U,” but she still faces life-and-death stakes IRL, based on her actions as an avatar idol in Hosoda’s Oscar-qualified Belle, which opens Friday in New York.
Naito has been depressed and socially withdrawn for years, since her mother heroically died saving an endangered child (who happened to be someone else’s kid). The high school student has one friend, the brutally caustic computer nerd “Hiro” Betsuyaku. She also has a protector, big-man-on-campus Shinobu Hisatake, who would probably like to be something more, but she just can’t see it in her present state of mind. Tellingly, she has been unable to sing since her mother’s death, but when Betsuyaku helps her reinvent in U as “Belle” (derived from Susu, which means “bell”), she becomes the most popular singer on the virtual platform. Yet, nobody but Hiro knows her true identity, because of U’s strict anonymity.
That also means nobody knows who “The Dragon” is either. He started be beating the heck out of everyone in U’s MMA tournaments, but his anti-social behavior inevitably attracts the attention of U’s self-appointed guardians of order. Frankly, their efforts to unmask Dragon’s identity might be even more disruptive than his rage-benders. Nevertheless, Naito/Belle intuitively feels the pain below his bruised exterior.
Acting on instinct, Belle manages to follow Dragon to his castle-lair hidden in the outer regions of U. There he broods with the company of loyal AI creature-servants. It looks very much like Beauty & the Beast, but Hosoda is only playing with the fable’s imagery. The secret of Dragon (sometimes actually referred to as the “Beast”) is entirely different from any of his movie, TV, or fairy tale predecessors.
In fact, Belle resonates so deeply as a film because it makes it clear what happens in physical reality is much more gravely important than the rivalries of avatars in U. However, Naito must navigate U as Belle in order to reach the real Dragon, who does indeed need her, whether he admits it or not. As a result, Belle is probably the most emotionally fulfilling GKIDS release since Ride Your Wave (on par with Poupelle of Chimney Town, which they missed out on).
Visually, it is also stunning. For Belle, Hosoda assembled an Expendables-level team of animators, including Jin Kim (formerly of Disney) to design Belle and Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart (acclaimed for Song of the Sea and Wolfwalkers) for the fantastical world-building. Frankly, the resulting animation is even more impressive than the baroque and trippy Summer Wars.
Belle special. During the course of the film, Naito will learn how to better relate with her father, her childhood crush Hisatake, and even Ruka Watanabe, the high school queen bee (who maybe isn’t really a mean girl at all). She also comes to terms with herself and the loss of her mother. It is a heck of a lot of character growth, but it comes during some stark and truly gripping real-life drama involving Dragon.
Belle is definitely one of the best animated films of 2021, up there with Poupelle and Bob Spit. It also happens to be one of the smartest and most engaging teen dramas of the year just passed—at this point it is hard to think of any other that remotely approached its level. Very highly recommended, Belle opens this Friday (1/14) in New York theaters, including the AMC Empire.