Ryuu to Sobakasu no Hime (BELLE) Review – A Spectacular, If Somewhat Shallow, Coming-of-Age Story

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“BELLE”, the latest anime film from acclaimed director Mamoru Hosoda and Studio Chizu (known for “Summer Wars”, “Mirai”, “Wolf Children”, and more), has finally been officially released in North America today with exclusive IMAX previews as early as January 12! At its premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, this loose adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast” received a 14-minute-long standing ovation, the longest at that year’s festival and the seventh longest in Cannes’ 75-year history. That’s quite a lot of prestige and acclaim, but does this adventure through cyberspace live up to the hype? Here’s our review of “BELLE”!

Mild Spoilers Ahead!

BELLE Medley English

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Mousey high schooler Suzu grew up singing and making music with her mother, but those idyllic days are cut short when her mother dies saving a child from a flood. Wracked with grief, she retreats into herself and loses her self-confidence, unable to even sing anymore without vomiting from stress. That is, until she discovers “U”, a VR game that allows its users to “start over” as idealized versions of themselves in a completely anonymous environment. Her avatar is the gorgeous Belle, who looks like a Disney princess (courtesy of veteran Disney character designer and animator Jin Kim) and is far enough removed from her real self that she can sing her heart out all she wants.

With her industrious friend Hiroka’s help, Belle becomes an overnight sensation—though this still doesn’t help Suzu’s confidence in the real world. It’s only when a mysterious “Beast” interrupts one of her concerts that she begins to pursue something outside of herself…

Visual Spectacle for Days

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Far and away, the best thing about this movie is its amazing animation. The real world is portrayed with traditional 2D animation while U is rendered in CG, and Studio Chizu knows just how to draw out the best qualities of each medium. Suzu’s town is brought to life with warm brushstrokes and rich painterly color palettes, and the characters’ expressions run the gamut from subtle shifts of the eyebrows to full-blown ugly crying.

On the other hand, U is awash with vibrant color, complex sci-fi environments, and endless crowds of individualized avatars. The movie’s very first scene shows off the studio’s technical expertise fantastically—floating above a massive sea of people on a giant whale with speakers on its back, Belle sings an upbeat song and dances around in a fancy floral dress to the applause of millions. It’s certainly extra, but it provides a stark contrast to the reveal of Suzu sitting alone in her modest bedroom directly afterwards. If nothing else, you can certainly count on “BELLE” to look outstanding.

Intriguing Themes About Grief and Self-Worth

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One of the most important tenets of Suzu’s character is that she feels betrayed and abandoned after her mother’s death. “Why was a stranger’s life more important than her life with me? Why am I all alone?” she wonders. She ignores her existing support network—her dad, childhood friend, and her mom’s old singing buddies—to double down on being a recluse and refuses to engage with the world. Her voice actress, Kaho Nakamura, portrays her wavering confidence in a very genuine way and even shows how the real Suzu’s self-sabotaging anxiety creeps through Belle’s mask of unshakable charisma in the virtual world.

When she meets the Beast, she’s immediately intrigued by how secluded he seems from the rest of U and how fiercely he fights back against anyone who tries to defeat him or figure out his identity, so she makes the decision to investigate him on her own. Everything seems set up for a coming-of-age drama where Suzu learns to connect with another person through the roundabout medium of virtual reality, and they both help each other appreciate the people in their lives who already love them so they can move forward into the future.

“Big” Moments Ring Hollow

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Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what happens. The pieces of a great story are all here, but “BELLE” doesn’t have a strong enough plotline to make them shine. The pacing is way too fast and the characters’ motivations for doing anything are usually pretty shallow, at least until near the very end. To best illustrate this, let’s compare the plot of “BELLE” to its most obvious inspiration, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”.

In the Disney film, Belle goes to the Beast’s castle because she’s trying to rescue her father, and she only bothers to get to know him after spending a significant amount of time in his home and becoming friendly with the servants. Their iconic dance in the great hall only comes after a whole heap of character development from both parties, and ties into the movie’s theme that respecting and loving another person as an equal is what sparks true joy in life. Later, when Gaston storms the castle with an angry mob, it’s because he wants to look like a hero and force Belle to marry him—and since the entire story is set in a tiny French village, these events affect basically everyone in town.

However, even though “BELLE” contains many of those same story beats, they just don’t ring true in the same way. Suzu only investigates the Beast out of sheer curiosity (he didn’t do much to her besides interrupt her concert), and since he appears out of nowhere 30 minutes into the movie, it’s a huge shift from the “Suzu coming out of her shell” plot that was going on before. They go through the whole rigamarole with the castle, servants, roses, dance, etc., but all of it happens very quickly and only seems to be there because it was in “Beauty and the Beast”. The only reason Belle and the Beast have to like each other is that she saw a photo of what she thinks is his dead mother, so she assumes that they have similar backstories and that he must be lashing out for the same reason that she’s made herself a recluse. Their romance doesn’t really connect with the themes shown earlier in the movie, so it feels odd to put so much emphasis on it.

The “Gaston” and “townsfolk” equivalents also lack substance because they exist in such a wildly different environment. Justin (who looks for all the world like a cross between All Might and Buzz Lightyear) is basically just a bully obsessed with doxing people and the other U users are only invested in hunting down the Beast because they think he’s responsible for their favorite virtual idol not singing for them anymore. U is such a large and interconnected world that, even if it took place in real life, the vast majority of people could just ignore the main plot and their lives wouldn’t change at all. “BELLE” does finally tie the Beast’s plight in with Suzu’s real life near the end of the movie, which helps wrap up her character arc in a satisfying way, but the middle section of the film feels so hollow that even supposedly big moments like the ballroom dance don’t leave much of an impact.

Final Thoughts

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“Belle” isn’t a bad film by any stretch—it’s just a bit confused. We aren’t sure why it got 14 straight minutes of applause at Cannes, but it seems like those long-standing ovations may just be a popularity contest anyway, so they’re not exactly an indicator of quality. We’d recommend seeing this movie in theaters in the best quality you can so you can appreciate the animation (lucky for you it’s in theaters now!), but maybe don’t think too hard about the story itself. And if you need to take a bathroom break halfway through, you probably won’t miss much.

What did you think of our review? Are you planning on seeing “BELLE”? Let us know in the comments, and thanks so much for reading!

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