Social media allows people to hide behind an online identity and to become someone other than who they are. If they do not identify themselves either by name or face, that adds as additional anonymity in which they truly can be someone else, not held back by physical descriptors or any past history of behavior to meet an entirely new population. Belle imagines an all-encompassing virtual reality where people can blaze new paths, and the remarkable journey of discovery one teenager has about who she is as a result of her immersion in that world.
Seventeen-year-old Suzu was traumatized at an early age by her mother’s death when she tried to save a child she did not know from drowning. At the urging of her friend Hiro, Suzu signs up for U, a virtual world where her personality traits are analyzed to create a fitting avatar, named Bell. When she enters U, she learns that she has an incredible ability to sing, one that Suzu has not known since she lost her mother. As she becomes a popular sensation, outperforming anyone else U has seen, she is introduced to a vengeful avatar known as the Dragon, who everyone around her villainizes but who she believes may simply be misunderstood.
It’s easy to root for a hero like Suzu since she truly is pure of heart. She does not know how to cope with the loss of her mother, and she is unable to connect with her father in a meaningful way since they are both still mourning. Her innocence and kindheartedness somehow leads to near-immediate fame within U, and it’s precisely because Suzu does not seek that attention or glory that what she sings resonates with so many. Yet she is still focused on seeing the person who nobody can, wondering whether the villain labeled as a beast may in fact be closer to a masked hero.
Director Mamoru Hosoda, who was nominated for an Oscar for his previous feature, Mirai, returns with an equally vibrant and wondrous story, one that has a truly endearing heroine in Suzu. The animation is dazzling, constructing a beautiful and vivid virtual reality world where anything seems possible. There is marvelous color and glitter to be found all around Belle when she sings, and the construction of this particular universe feels both familiar and inventive, filled with countless lines of code that manifest as a visually appealing and stunning environment.
Another key element of Belle that is haunting and unforgettable is its music. As soon as Belle first appears in U, she begins singing, and those around her are moved by the melody and words. Audiences should feel similarly, since there is a magnetic beauty to them. It also sends a powerful message that music can unite people, and the identity of the singer shouldn’t matter if the content is inviting and relatable. At the same time, it underlines the superficiality of so many who wouldn’t have given Suzu the time of day had she not appeared in the way that she does within U.
The poster for Belle likens this story to another animated feature, Beauty and the Beast, which finds someone designated as attractive by society expressing far more compassion than those around her in a quest to get to know the vicious brute written off as evil and irredeemable. Like that beloved film from thirty years ago, Belle has the makings of an enduring classic that uses an exceptional visual approach to share a tale of humanity and identity as discovered through the gradual unveiling of the masks we all wear.
Select preview screenings of Belle start Wednesday, January 12th ahead of its nationwide theatrical release on Friday, January 14th.