Review – Belle

By Andrew Roberts

Beauty and the Beast is, as Howard Ashman immortalised in the 1991 Disney adaptation, a tale as old as time. The original story as it is known today was written in the mid-1700s by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, itself an adaptation of a story written by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve released some 16 years prior. And yet, it feels as though it is a quintessential piece of storytelling, the French novels being inspired by Roman mythology, and who knows how much further it goes back. There’s something to this same tale being told repeatedly throughout the centuries, something that keeps attracting storytellers to the fairy tale to reinterpret it in different forms, mediums and styles. Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle is the latest in a long line of Beauty and the Beast stories, but its modern reinterpretation of the fairy tale is among the most beautiful.

Belle is a story we’ve all seen before. Yet, writer/director Mamoru Hosoda uses that tale in a modern, mature update to explore all kinds of things, from the anonymity of the internet to the nature of internet culture. Still, above all else, he uses the story to examine the nature of identity and the secrets we deal with behind our screens. It’s a piece of pure empathy, beautifully told, fundamentally human at every turn, all the while it is also one of the best pieces of animation in years, bursting with colour sound, constantly coming alive within the frame.

Belle tells the story of Suzu, a teenager who lost her mother, who was committing a brave act of selflessness, at a young age. As she’s grown up, Suzu’s early interest in music wavered with her mother’s death, let alone her sociability, as she retracted from social interaction. When her friend, Hiro, links her to an immersive social media platform, U, Suzu, under the alias Bell, finds her voice again and rises to stardom, unbeknownst to anyone in her real-life except Hiro. When Suzu, now Belle, is about to perform at the largest concert U has ever seen, it is disrupted by the appearance of The Dragon, a user who appears as a beastly figure with bruises across his back, being chased by the self-appointed U’s guardians of justice, headed by the dashing Justin. Frustrated and perplexed by this Dragon, Suzu and Hiro begin an investigation to discover the real identity of The Dragon.

Hosoda and the teams at Studio Chizu work magic in the animation department. As one of the best-looking films of the past few years, it is full of these incredible vistas in the world of U, beautiful character designs, from Bell herself, to The Dragon, a terrifying dark creature, to the angel avatar that Suzu first meets in U, this cute, kind-hearted user, to all of the background characters in their vast, varied designs. Hosoda uses very different design styles for the real world and U. This useful distinction adds to the extravagance and fantastic nature of U. He also uses a very different directorial style. The frame is animated in a far more traditional sense; the visual style looks far more typical (though no less beautifully drawn). For U, the framing is far more dynamic, as Hosoda flies through the virtual world and around Belle and The Dragon in an explosion of colour and movement (quite literally in the opening sequence). It’s beautiful to watch, especially with a master like Hosoda and his team of animators having so much control over the frame at every turn, making use of it all to a really gorgeous effect.

The script, likewise, has this attention to detail that feels so innately focused on the beauty of its empathy. While a little messy in the beginning as it establishes the world, it’s overall a clever adaptation of a classic tale. It doesn’t try to hide its inspirations. While it’s not credited as being based upon either of the novels nor is it a one-to-one adaptation, if you’re familiar with the story at all, it’s easy to see the connective tissue. The modernisation and science fantasy aspects are inspired, allowing the story to take on a new form, moving away from the romantic core of the classic tale and transforming it into an account of identity and embracing one’s self. But really, this is a film about pushing past your own fears to help others above all else. This especially feels like what drew Hosoda to reinterpreting this story. While it’s still a story of love, it’s not a romance; it’s using the fairy tale to tell a story about empathy and connection, especially in the age of the internet, where we all can become either beauty or the beast hidden behind the avatars and profile pictures of the internet. Hosoda pushes the audience to consider who is behind the screen, what they hide, who they are and why. It’s too simple to villainise someone, never to say that someone can’t be bad online, but rather outstretching an arm for support and questioning what is really happening behind the mask of the screen.

The songs, written by Daiki Tsuneta, are equally as gorgeous as the script and animation. It’s in this music that Suzu’s heart is poured out. They come at the most emotional moments, entering U for the first time, finding her voice again, and finding success. They are few and far between, and yet that never feels wrong. The songs are always perfectly placed for an emotional beat, exposing her emotional heart vulnerable for all to see. It’s hard not to get choked up in some of these moments, especially towards the end. That’s not to mention that they’re just charming songs as well, gorgeous, heartfelt pop ballads that are just innately listenable.

Belle is an astoundingly beautiful culmination of animation and music, gorgeous vistas, perfect colour and staggering sound, coming together to create an overwhelming emotional experience. It’s jaw-dropping to look at, married with a beautiful script and a heart that knows no bounds. Hosoda brings together a piece of art that is so touching and emotionally affecting (I sobbed for the final 20 minutes straight), it may be another retelling of an old story, but it is most definitely one of the most integral.

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