Isn’t it pretty and beautiful to watch? That is what I grudgingly said to myself more than once with growing dissatisfaction while I watched Japanese animation filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda’s latest work “Belle”. On the surface, there is nothing particularly bad in terms of mood, style, detail, and music, but the story, which is incidentally based on Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s famous French fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”, is often hampered by weak narrative and flat characterization, and my mind only came to observe it from the distance even though my eyes were frequently dazzled by those numerous lovely visual moments in the film.
If you have already watched Hosoda’s previous work “Summer Wars” (2009), the story stetting of “Belle” will feel pretty familiar to you to the core. Again, the film often goes back and forth between the real world and the realm of online virtual reality, and the colorfully detailed presentation of its digital world certainly grabs our attention right from the beginning. In this brave new world, which is simply called “U”, one can be considerably empowered by an anonymous avatar custom-made from his/her/their original appearance and personality, and we observe how millions of users around the world freely enjoy or express themselves in this heavenly world, which, in my humble opinion, looks too naïve and idealistic compared to what is frequently happening here and there in our messy real-life digital world everyday.
The heroine of the story is a female high schooler named Suzu Naito (voiced by Kaho Nakamura), and the early part of the story observes how she becomes “Belle” in the world of U. Besides being your average introverted adolescent girl, Suzu has been haunted by the tragic death of her dear mother during her childhood year, and she is not exactly on good terms with her caring father, but she is often urged to express herself more – especially when she discovers her romantic feeling toward a certain male student in her school.
When she later comes across the world of U, Suzu naturally hesitates at first, but she eventually decides to give it a try. Although singing in front of others is the last thing she wants to do right now, she finds herself becoming a lot more uninhibited once she enters the world of U as Belle, and then she just sings one of the songs written by her in private. Her first performance in the world of U initially does not draw much attention from other users, but, what do you know, that soon becomes a huge online sensation around the world because, well, she sincerely sang straight from her heart.
As watching her digital avatar’s popularity exponentially growing day by day, Suzu is excited a bit, but she is also scared about the possibility of getting herself exposed to those countless users out there in the world of U. Fortunately, nobody around her except her best friend, who happens to be your typical computer nerd, does not know anything about the connection between her and Belle, and it seems that all she will have to do is singing more of her songs for millions of her fans at least for a while.
However, there comes an unexpected matter when Suzu/Belle is readying herself for another digital performance. Right before she sings, the big fight between a bunch of online guards and a mysterious dragon figure occurs, and Suzu/Belle becomes more curious after coming to learn more about this mysterious dragon figure, who is completely anonymous without any particular clue to the real identity behind its aggressive appearance.
It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that our heroine eventually finds herself in a big and ominous castle where “the Beast” is usually hiding, and we surely get several notable elements which will instantly remind you of the highlights of Disney animation “Beauty and the Beast” (1991). The castle is taken care of by a number of small and cute artificial intelligence figures which can be compared to those living furniture characters in the Disney animation, and we are even served with a supposedly romantic ballroom scene later in the story.
However, Hosoda’s screenplay falters more than once as trying to juggle many other story elements besides the intrigue surrounding the strained online relationship between Suzu/Belle and the Beast. While there is a subplot involved with the aforementioned male student and one of the most popular girls in the school, there is also a small part associated with several older women willing to share their singing experience with Suzu, and then the movie suddenly takes a jarringly dark left turn once Suzu and several other main characters around her come to confront the dark truth behind the real identity of the Beast.
For holding all these and other things in the story well together, the movie certainly needs a strong emotional anchor, but, alas, it seriously lacks that as often feeling too thin and incoherent in terms of story and characters, and I must point out that many of its main characters including Suzu are not that strong enough to hold our attention during its 2-hour running time. In addition, the movie often blatantly pushes us into sappy histrionic and tearful melodrama especially during its last act, and that only made me more distracted during my viewing.
In conclusion, “Belle”, whose Japanese original title is incidentally “The Dragon and the Freckled Princess”, is another disappointment from Mamoru after “Mirai” (2018), which somehow got Oscar-nominated despite being two or three steps down from “Summer Wars” and Hosoda’s other better works. Yes, it is indeed a visual pleasure in technical aspects, but it still left me rather cold and distant nonetheless, so I will let you decide for yourself whether you will watch it or not. If you simply just want an eye candy, you will not be disappointed, but please do not expect much.