At a time when Black Mirror remains the dominant pop culture reflection of man’s relationship with technology, and the Internet in particular, this film immediately grabs attention because it swings in the opposite direction.
In the latest cyberspace coming-of-age story from Mamoru Hosoda, of Summer Wars and two-thirds of Digimon: The Movie fame, the depiction of the Internet through the virtual world of U is among the most inviting ever put to screens. The beautifully rendered 2.5D animation, the sheer scale of the digital world and all its facets, the conscious but optimistic tone of the story; this ain’t your daddy’s Hellscape.
With that as the foundation, Hosoda offers a spin on the classic story of Beauty & The Beast. Bolstering the original’s look at surface-level prejudices and finding one’s true self, the story of Suzu and her titular pop idol avatar (acted and sung angelically by Kaho Nakamura) is as much about her coming to terms with her own identity as it is about her trying to break through to that of The Dragon (Takeru Satoh).
In its exploration of the Internet as a place for introverts to discover themselves, the writing and visuals have Makoto (Your Name) Shinkai-sized gut-punches lying in wait, showing a breadth of understanding of what can make socialised media such a drag to deal with… but also, something that a lot of people need to help them with the real world’s vile nonsense. It sticks firmly to the idea of the digital self as a source of empowerment, and through the eyes of Suzu, both as an awkward high schooler and as a captivating music star, is an invigorating one.
Much like the Disney’s version of Beauty & The Beast, Belle is also a musical. Well, in as much as something like anime Macross Plus could be considered a musical, since they share an equal emphasis on music and song as a means of personal and even communal revelation.
Nakamura’s utterly disarming voice, combined with the work of composers Taisei Iwasaki, Ludvig Forssell, Yuta Bandoh, and Miho Sakai, creates an enveloping and rapturous soundtrack, one that manages to push the film’s already-monumental levels of emotional engagement even higher. At this point, tickets for it should be printed on facial tissue, because audiences are going to need it on hand.
Belle is one of the most heartrending depictions of the Internet in recent memory, not by resorting to trendy cynical nihilism, but by showing that it is also capable of the miraculous. It manages to celebrate the good that can take place, but in an honest fashion, which only makes its consistently tear-jerking developments hit that much harder. And beyond that, it’s a very touching and resonant tribute to those who occupy these screens not to punch others down, but to raise others up, including themselves.