When they call you the spiritual successor to legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, you must be doing something right. Director Mamoru Hosoda originally garnered fame at Toei Animation in the early 2000s with two films in the Digimon Adventure series. In 2011, he co-founded Studio Chizu. Wolf Children and The Boy and the Beast were their first two films. Mirai followed and was Oscar-nominated for Best Animated feature in 2019. Belle is the studio’s fourth release.
OK, let me see if I can make sense of this story. Suzu is a withdrawn freckle-faced girl living in rural Japan. Following the death of her mother, the high school student retreats into an online virtual world called “U” with 5 billion players. She creates an avatar linked to her biometric info and becomes a pink-haired pop princess named Belle. It is within this alternate reality that Suzu achieves her true potential. As a lithe and beautiful Barbie-like singer, she attains global superstardom. She later meets a mysterious fellow player within the fantasy world called “The Dragon.” After this beast interrupts her concert — ultimately ruining it — he is pursued by a phalanx of vigilantes led by the arrogant Jason. They have superpowers naturally. Suzu’s desire to uncover The Dragon’s true identity develops into an obsession.
Belle is nothing if not bewildering for the number of plot threads it throws into the mix. The title acknowledges a debt to Beauty and the Beast. It even has an extended sequence that “pays homage” to the iconic ballroom dance from that Disney film. That’s merely one minor component. An ordinary teen who secretly performs as a pretty singing star is reminiscent of the 1980s American cartoon TV series Jem but in a simulated existence. Think Jem visits The Matrix.
Suzu is constantly being pulled between reality and fantasy. In the real world, Suzu is trying to come to terms with her mom’s passing. A group of uniformed high school peers comprises a soap opera that could be the foundation for a completely different movie. Suzu has a crush on childhood pal Shinobu. Popular “It” girl Ruka has eyes for jock Kamishin and appeals to Suzu for help. Meanwhile, her intellectual but snarky best friend Hiro offers Suzu advice on how to navigate the internet world of U. Hiro assists in trying to unveil The Dragon. It’s here that the saga goes off on a tangent as various odd characters are introduced: a troubled baseball player, a tattooed artist, and some woman pretending to be the ideal housewife. If all that weren’t enough, there’s also an investigation into child abuse. Why have one plotline when you can have six or more?
Belle is an ambitious tale inundated by exquisite imagery. There are undeniably dazzling moments. Mamoru Hosoda populates his virtual environment with a glittering confection of digital avatars, pixies, critters, superheroes, confetti, glowing orbs, and whales in the cosmos. When Belle sings “A Million Miles Away” at the climax, it’s an epic finish that achieves a poetic finality. Unfortunately, the chronicle continues for another 20 minutes in order to tie up some unfinished details. The bizarre unpredictability of the production may have more appeal for fans familiar with the capricious nature of anime.
It’s sci-fi! It’s a fairytale! It’s a soap opera! Belle’s punishing two hour+ runtime entertains a dizzying number of subplots. Sadly they don’t coalesce into a compelling singular narrative. The spotlight is on Suzu (and her alter ego Belle), but this poor girl is beset by a myriad of distractions. The death of her mom, the cute boy at school, acquiring confidence, a J-Pop singing career, computer technology, and helping out an abused youth, all vie for her attention. Those craving a focus will be mystified. The lack of consideration for one central objective makes an emotional connection to this material impossible.