Filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda has built a career on grounding the surreal elements of storytelling with the human condition. With his earlier works (Summer Wars and Wolf Children), Hosada demonstrated a tremendous ability to instill magic into the most seemingly ordinary moments, giving high stakes to daily struggles and tempering apocalyptic threats with unwavering hope. His stories are fairy tales, something that makes his latest film Belle, a new iteration of The Beauty and the Beast, well suited to his sensibilities.
Hosada’s curiosity and warmth toward reality make a perfect combination to elevate a story where an ordinary girl finds herself somewhere sensational. Now playing in theaters, Belle encapsulates Hosada’s finest animation and most emotionally gripping tale. Despite already setting a high bar for himself with Belle, the filmmaker exceeds expectations through gusto and creative passion that has long marked him as one of the very best in the medium.
Written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda, Belle follows Suzu (Kaho Nakamura), an introverted high school student who becomes a globally renowned singer known as Belle after entering an incredibly popular virtual world called U. However, U can’t simply remain Suzu’s means for escape. Soon, she embarks on a quest in both the real world and U to uncover the identity of a mysterious beast (Takeru Satoh), who's on the run from ruthless vigilantes.
Hosoda’s ability to build tangible tension between the real and fantasy worlds allows his animated films to flourish in the genre. This is all demonstrated beautifully through the art itself. The real world is drawn with cruder lines, and there’s a deliberate lack of stillness to characters as they run to enact a rescue, play for the school band, or hide behind their hands in deep-seated embarrassment.
In comparison, the virtual world where the movie spends half of its time is sleek with stark and structured lines and edges. It’s a shared, anonymous utopia where everyone has their own make and model. But amidst that color and cornucopia of archetypal variations, a rigidity remains. So when Belle and the Beast begin to draw unwanted and unwarranted ire, they stick out because they don’t blend perfectly into the background. When they shatter the artificial and literal glass, the shards are angular, luminous, and dangerous but still a part of the spectacle.
Belle continues its series of thematic and visual contrasts, which build to a crescendo in two breathtaking, standout moments. Belle and Beast float together in one scene while the world bustles around them. Another moment sees Belle standing in front of all of U to belt out her song — her plea to the Beast’s real-world identity to hear her and believe that she only wants to help. And what amplifies the intensity of these scenes is how the film realizes Belle’s characterization through design. She's a shy high-school student with an extraordinary gift who has endured loss and possesses the capability to save others who are in dire need of her empathy.
Produced by Studio Chizu, the film also received help from veteran Disney animator and character designer Jin Kim and Michael Camacho on Belle’s design, while Cartoon Saloon (the studio behind Wolfwalkers, Song of the Sea) assisted with the background world of U. Hosada’s touch may be most eminent on the final product, but by collaborating from different studios and artists, the filmmaker transforms the atmosphere of Belle, in particular the environment inside U, into something universal. Considering this is a fictional place for anyone, wherever they may be, to congregate, it adds an extra layer onto an already expansive world.
Beyond the stellar animation and writing, Belle’s most integral element is its music. Composed by Taisei Iwasaki, Ludvig Forssell, Yuta Bandoh, and Miho Sakai with performances from Nakamura, the score and Belle’s voice strike chords of whimsy, heartache, and fierce determination. A newcomer to voice acting, Nakamura is extraordinary, imbuing certain variations of the same song with energy and sorrow depending on where her character is on her journey. The film spends a decent amount of time lingering on the awestruck faces of characters watching her perform, and Belle earns those moments because the songs and Nakumura’s voice are that enchanting.
Belle is hardly a radical story. It’s inspired by one of the most famous fairy tales of all time., and the journey of a character emerging from grief to become a stronger version of one’s self is a narrative we’ve seen plenty of. But Belle isn’t attempting to challenge viewers. Instead, it explores humanity’s contradictions — the natural divisions we contend with every day — to emphasize what connects us.
Music is a means of escape in this world, and Suzu uses her profound empathy to save someone else and unburden them from their suffering. As a statement on the power of community, art, and the bonds of friendship, Belle shows us the very best of what fantasy and reality can gift us and the magic that happens between the creation of both.
Belle opens in theaters on January 14.