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Talking about this movie has been a long time in the making, and something I have been excited about for just as long. Mamoru Hosoda, along with Studio Chizu, has become one of my favorite teams in the world of anime. Though his films are a bit more family-centric, it never stops them from being exciting from beginning to end.
Belle, I am happy to report, is not much different in that regard. At a little over two hours in run time, the movie manages to fit in an action-packed, colorful adventure while managing to tackle some tuff themes like abuse and the psychology of absent parents. However, it is by no means perfect, and while it is not a bad film, it is probably on the lower end of Hosoda’s catalog for a few key reasons which I will get into.
In case anyone missed the memo, the film’s title of Belle is both a reference to our main character Suzuku’s online avatar in the world of U, as well as the name of the main character from the classic Disney film Beauty and the Beast. In fact, the film borrows a lot of its core plotline from Beauty and the Beast.
Belle tells the story of the aforementioned Suzu and her online persona Belle. In the introductory moments of the movie, we are shown how she lost her mom while she was trying to save a kid from drowning in a raging river, and also that Suzu’s mom loved to teach her music. Fast forward a bit and suddenly, with the help of her best friend/producer Hiroka, her avatar Belle has become the number one music sensation in the country.
Most of the story’s actual plot takes place in U, a worldwide social media platform that takes real-world physical and biological data from its users to create a virtual avatar. It is stated a few times throughout the film that Suzu joins U because the death of her mother left her too traumatized to sing in real life. Thus, Belle becomes both her persona as well as a tool through which to release her feelings.
The story of Belle overall is incredibly fast-paced and engaging. However, the transition from its initial focus on Suzu and her road to healing to the introduction of the Beast character feels kind of break-neck. Literally, Belle is about to give a virtual concert, and with no prior foreshadowing, he just kind of shows up and starts fighting people. A charitable interpretation might be that this quick introduction can serve as a metaphor for its thematic elements, but it more so comes off as poor planning.
How is the Music This Pretty?!
The one thing I was not expecting out of Belle was to be blown away by its musical content, or even for there to be any music in the first place. I went into the film more or less blind, and while I did see a trailer or two, it never registered that there was going to be an entire storyline about it.
It is at this point that I should probably mention that I have, at the time of writing this, only seen the film in its dubbed version, and thus the singing and lyrical content I talk about will be in reference to that. Now, getting back to it, wow this soundtrack is basically just ear candy.
The production overall across the film is incredible, from its more climatic and cinematic songs down to the more low-key instrumentals, every song puts in work and I honestly cannot say there is a boring musical moment here. Kylie McNeill was not a name that likely anyone recognized and yet her singing as Suzu and Belle could not have been better.
As a point of comparison, I did listen to some of the bigger tracks in Japanese. While Kaho Nakamura is undoubtedly also very talented, my lack of having seen the Japanese version in full, combined with my English bias still has me appreciating the native version a bit more.
…The Voice Acting
and here is the part where I have to be a bit harsher because as fantastic of a singer as McNeill is, her and the other English VAs’ voice-overs are…rough, to say the least.
At first, it does not come across as super noticeable. After all, one of the ways characters get distinguished vocally is to give them all their own oral quirks. However, as the film goes on, especially in some of the more drawn-out, quieter moments, the awkwardness of the lines becomes all the more apparent. It is partially understandable, given how socially awkward all of the characters are, but it feels like some sections of the script were just straight up put through google translate and then given directly to the voice actors.
What is worse, the lip-syncing team was either non-existent or simply not given enough time to properly do their jobs. There are a number of points where it feels like lines either ran far too long for what the character was saying or too short, and almost no work was done to fix it. The Dubbing is by far the weakest element of Belle, and unfortunately, it is too apparent not to address.
Anime Studio Budgets When They’re Making a Movie:
Ok, now I can go back to being nice. The animation was also a high point and one of the big reasons to see this film. Normally my expectations for animation in anime films are much higher because, well, they are not spreading out all their money over 12 or even 24 episodes.
No, what makes Belle special in this regard is not the quality itself, although it is quite high. Rather, the blend of virtual reality and fantasy creates a unique color palette. The buildings towering over the world of U, The castle which serves as the Beast’s hiding spot, the background characters who all have a design that feels genuinely personal: All of it comes together in a way that compliments Belle‘s vision.
Turning again to its story elements, Hosoda’s decision to reimagine the story of Beauty and the Beast as explicitly centered on physical and emotional abuse is one that I sincerely applaud. Almost by definition, it is not an easy subject to broach, let alone in the context of online interaction, especially given the number of documentaries that have pointed out rather thoroughly how it can go unseen.
The internet is a strange place, after all. In the same amount of time that it takes for us to scroll through Twitter when we wake up people have likely been kidnapped and trafficked using the same technology. However, the decision to have that same technology be what saves K and his brother as a way of inspiring hope was a good one.
Belle is a strange case because it is pretty much the only Hosoda film where I feel as though seeing both the English and Japanese versions are necessary for having a complete opinion. Too many problems arise because of the English version for me to give it a perfect score. So, for those that do plan on seeing it, try giving the Japanese version a watch, and let me know how that goes.
How do you all feel about Belle? Let me know in the comments below.
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