Written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda
Mamoru Hosoda is a big enough name that it occasions mild embarrassment to admit that until now I've never really liked any of his movies that I've seen, including his last, 2018's Mirai, one of those sacrificial foreign entries that the Academy uses to make its Best Disney or Pixar Animated Feature category appear slightly less parochial; and I've skipped several, for example the one about the widowed furry. Even so, I've always recognized that there's a lot to admire in Hosoda even if his movies weren't always good; I could see how someone could respond to their sincerity and visual imagination, even if I've tended to find his films let down by disjointed narratives, clunky emotional appeals, and not-all-there 2-D/3-D compositing.
That's not actually changed with his new film, Belle—not the disjointedness, nor the clunkiness (the compositing's at least more narratively-useful), and I assume it represents a new peak for Hosoda's exploitation of anime's vastly higher tolerance in comparison to Western storytelling modes for characters soliloquizing in the bluntest possible terms—yet fully fifteen years after it left the station with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, I guess I've finally got on board the Hosoda train, eager to catch up with the Hosoda films I missed and willing to reevaluate the ones I didn't. Maybe that's because he did something different with Belle that finally won me over, which is a little dubious, given it's such a blatant spiritual successor to 2009's Summer Wars, but it's at least possible that Belle's particular blend of loosey-goosiness and pathos is simply that much better a vehicle for Hosoda's wild expressions of passionate and not-always-obviously-germane interests than anything I've seen so far.
And no matter what else it is, it's got to be the best TRON of 2021, a low bar but a real one, as last year turned out to be the year that the nascent genre of movies about people living inside computers exploded; Belle reminds me that they don't have to be soul-sucking cinema-is-dead abominations. Oh, and it's also 2021's best musical, animated or otherwise, and there were an unusual number of those this past year, too. Ultimately, you can tell that Hosoda (and, hopefully, his employees, though a lot of this was actually done at Ireland's Cartoon Saloon) loved making this, and if it wasn't made to be a compendium of the filmmaker's interests, it certainly seems that way, and surely must encompass most of them: the sad kids of dead parents; colorfully goofy pastiches of a fanciful futuristic Internet; the things computers permit animators to do with 2-D cartoons these days; and, given that a lot of anime filmmakers are passionate about the above-listed things, I shall add that apparently Hosoda loves, in particular, Beauty and the Beast, by which I mean Disney's Beauty and Beast, which he loves to an insane and indeed borderline-actionable degree.
It is, nevertheless, and like Summer Wars before it, a movie about the Internet that feels like it was written by somebody who's never used the Internet and has only read books about it from the late 1990s (not even non-fiction books), and so it's also at turns incomprehensible and incoherent and operating at bizarre parallels to actual life as it is lived online today or presumably shall be lived in Belle's own next-Tuesday-A.D. setting. As its finer points require explanation, we begin with a primer on Belle's answer to Summer Wars' virtual world, OZ, which has been streamlined in the intervening twelve years, in that now it's only one Roman character, U. (As in "you are U, and U are you," the service's tagline, which pulls something like triple duty of being slightly clever in itself, a satire of its kind of cloying tech company slogan, and a genuine thesis statement, smartly hidden in plain sight.)
This winds up somewhere between omniscient narration and advertising copy, but it sets up the parameters of a universe where nearly half of humanity has plugged into a Matrixy simulated reality via a neural link. We get our first look of U's public square (which is more like a public cube, as U's baseline user experience is floating around in a sea of teeming thousands in a vast, gravitationally-untethered three-dimensional space) during an unusually productive in medias res opening, as a rousing J-pop anthem rises in the sound mix, and out of the chaos of all the floaty, shiny stuff emerges a colossal humpback whale barnacled with speakers. On its nose rides our heroine belting out one of her famous songs, which Hosoda gratifyingly permits its natural length. This is Belle (Kaho Nakamura), famed Internet singer resplendent in the almost alien beauty of a digital avatar. Obviously, after this my devotion was going to be hard to shake.
Like Hannah Montana before her but moreso, however, Belle is really just Suzu, a shy mousy teen with essentially only one friend, Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta), so let's circle back: Suzu's had a hard time of it for years, since her mother died saving another child during a flood and her dad (Koji Yakusho) effectively sealed himself away in his own pocket universe of terse grief. Presently, Suzu spends her time with Hiroka watching on with a listless envy as popular girls like Ruka (Tina Tamashiro) have enjoyable lives and get to be attractive to boys. Suzu herself has a crush on her childhood classmate Shinobu (Ryo Narita), who's technically her friend, but only after his fashion, in that he's conceived for himself the role of Suzu's guardian, making sure she doesn't get bullied, or get too sad, or jump off a bridge, which is the kind of condescending relationship that can only ever be so satisfying. Once a little musical wizard, Suzu hasn't been able to bring herself to sing at all since her mother's passing; her memories of music are so tied to her mother that even trying makes her physically ill.
Everything changes when she joins U. Inside, Suzu wears a neat new body—based, in fact, off a photo of Ruka, with only the grace note of two symmetrical arcs of "freckles" that are more like iridescent tattoos to point to her own real-life physicality. Armed with her new anonymous identity, Suzu finds her voice again as "Bell," and she eventually gets her "e" when everyone decides she's the digital hotness after singing a song that gets a chilly initial reaction before becoming what must be the biggest hit single in history, thanks to Hiroka's social media intervention. Before you know it, Suzu is Queen YouTube or whatever, but into the midst of a billion-viewer concert crashes the Dragon (Takeru Satoh), engaged in some sort of running battle with the self-appointed mods of U, capturing Suzu's fascination even as he becomes troll no. 1 on the mods' hit-list. Suzu seeks him out, seeing her own inner pain reflected in his outward beastliness, and "Belle" finds him before the Internet cops do. But that's only the beginning of the mystery of the Dragon, and solving it becomes a matter of life and death—real life and death.
It is, of course, a lot, and it's not unerringly-presented. There's no getting around how teeth-grindingly ramshackle this world-building is, for starters, and there's things I didn't even mention that impact its credibility, like, for example, the appeal of a singer's attractiveness in a milieu where hotness is a trivial concern. (Considering that one of the prime uses of U's realer-than-real world would be fucking—well, actually, maybe that explains all the obscene freaks in the background rather than argues against them.) It gets mixed-up in the explanations surrounding U's avatar-generation system—I became actively confused when discussions shift to the presumably-metaphorical notion of how it reflects one's inner self, despite the modal avatar being some kind of monster, and I walked out of the movie thinking this was actually part of the technology until I was corrected—but they do say, explicitly, that the service apparently locks you into a single digital chassis for life, which is Goddamn nuts. There's likewise the disagreeable Black Mirror aspect of the thing that posits a revolutionary new technology that is, in fact, dozens of revolutionary new technologies, all bundled into a single society-toppling application, that has somehow managed to coexist with a world that looks pretty much the same as ours; early on, we get a tantalizing minute where we follow Suzu as she navigates the remarkably empty spaces of her world (one stressed background detail is that the bus line between her house and the nearest town is scheduled to close), but this turns out only to signal "she lives in rural Shikoku," rather than "everyone's a hikikomori and loves it." Then there's just the extremely basic shit that misapprehends what online spaces even are, like when the Dragon interrupts Belle's performance, which is sort of like interrupting a podcast by playing Super Smash Bros. at it. It's certainly best to treat U as a fantasy realm, then, if not just an out-and-out metaphor, but this gets difficult when the film spends half or more of its runtime in meatspace with kids with their heads stuck in monitors, thereby demanding that you also take it extremely literally.
Okay, I'm complaining, but God, does it allow Hosoda and his colleagues at Studio Chizo and Cartoon Saloon to do so much with style. Belle would justify itself in the absence of almost literally anything else good as a cornucopia of different imagery and styles that somehow work together rather than against each other; and, distinct from the mechanics, the melodramatics are at least well-built enough that the feelings can soar when held aloft by those visuals. The key thing is the distinction between the physical and online, though that probably needs to be caveated as the distinction between its physical and online characters; the actual world of U isn't the worthiest creation. It's mostly just very busy with color and multiplying screens and weird avatars and some very attractive abstract design, but I'd be lying if I didn't mentally compare it to the lack of apparent function of the circumscribed online spaces in Ralph Breaks the Internet, and even thinking of that movie is bad. I mean, it's always vastly more abrasively interesting, in the sheer amount of information it throws at you—the frame filling with splitscreens and texts, sometimes overloading your ability to keep up—but conceptually it's all still somewhat sterile and not entirely persuasive. (By the same token, I can quibble, and will, with the over-reliance on painted-over 3-D backdrops in Belle's physical world, which from time to time even look like someone just ran Google images through a Photoshop filter. It's still mostly good-looking, but actual problems occasionally crop up in the always-uncertain mesh between traditionally-animated characters and 3-D settings. It at least feels like an intentional choice in Belle rather than just the limitation that only Makoto Shinkai has completely successfully hurdled.)
But the characters, I said, and Belle has just one amazingly well-thought-out and well-executed visual scheme, tacking toward the duality of its characters' identities and capturing in downright electrifying ways the giddy thrills of being in U. The basic idea Hosoda struck upon was to design and animate his "real" humans with damn near TV-levels of stiff angularity and abstraction: they're actually much better animated than "TV" suggests, in that the craft is there, but bent toward handicraft minimalism, with what at least looks like limited key frames, not much in-betweening, and limited computerized assistance. Hell, there's a comic setpiece in a "long take" that might be four full minutes long, and it involves one single frame held for upwards of four hundred eighty frames of "animation," or about twenty seconds. I haven't even mentioned that Belle is often a really funny comedy, but this sequence is outright hilarious, taking advantage of the leeway Hosoda gave himself in the dog's-ears he allows his story to have with a couple of secondary characters who accidentally admit they like each other and they basically both have strokes while the "camera" stays implacably fixed on their apocalyptic embarassment and they go blood red. This is the ultimate epxression of it, but the "real world" sections have frequently taken every possible advantage of the possibilities of flat animation to stretch and deform the characters as befits whatever overwrought emotions they're feeling in the moment, really treating them as cartoons subject to barely any physical law.
Online, this is entirely reversed, the distinction most obvious and apparent with Suzu and Belle, the latter still stylized but in really divergent ways, with Suzu's avatar animated
with the most gorgeously fluid and lifelike computer-assisted inbetweening and drafted with whatever Studio Chizo's latterday equivalent of CAPS is ETA: I'm informed she's full-on cel-shaded 3-D, which blows my fuckin' mind, because she doesn't remotely feel 3-D or even like there's rigging underneath (and they evidently used special techniques to ensure she didn't). Well, either way, it's where we get to the whole Disney thing: Belle doesn't look like, you know, Belle, specifically, but she does look like every Disney heroine after Glen Keane hit on the magic formula with Ariel in The Little Mermaid.
Accordingly, she's built upon the lightly-caricatured realist principles of a Disney heroine (and the other denizens of U, being mainly weirdos, on the principles of Disney sidekicks) in pursuit of the old illusion of life. That probably signifies something in and of itself, but I tried to think of another anime character that has stable, anatomically-functional lips or nostrils, though the flipside of the coin is that the digital self is far more fixed in her image than the "real" one. (I cannot say if this is meaningful or just a byproduct.) Now, this is mainly the expressive face: the body is an odd amalgam of Disney princess and noodle person, though even this resembles later Disney Renaissance heroines, and when I learned that Disney stalwart Jin Kim worked on Belle as a designer, I was pleased to find that he came into his own at the studio during that exact period. Ultimately, too, Suzu's own real-life physicality comes into play in U, and they split the difference between these incredibly different styles extraordinarily well.
The Dragon is likewise a brilliant creation, part boar, part crocodile, and in very large part, wouldn't you guess it, Keane's Beast, and U must have unique and personalized locations, even we don't see any of the rest of them, though calling the one it gives us "unique and personalized" may be inaccurate, and for a good reel Belle becomes a nearly shot-for-shot remake of Beauty and the Beast, or at least remix, done up in an abstracted haze. It's really wild (its nearest comparison is the Shining sequence in Ready Player One, except this is pure homage rather than fan-service disguising satire), and in its repurposing of the iconography (including the freaking rose), it winds up finding exactly the right resonance to work as its own thing for its own goals. It's absolutely flattening to find a movie in 2021 using nostalgia to make something that's even good, let alone something new.
So it's just a profoundly beautiful piece of work, and I've really only scratched the surface. (The last musical number hits you with the kind of maudlin go-for-broke sincerity that I can't help but wholeheartedly respond to, and it helps that I really like all the songs: the brash first one is still probably the best, as the rest are slower, more sensitive ballads, but they all benefit from the kind of overdone, even gaudy production work that I think I have to accept is my "taste" in music, without, remarkably, seeming to need to do much for Nakamura's voice, so it does feel a step to the left of a lot of modern pop, J- and otherwise.) There's so much visual invention here, on top of a story that's at least compelling in its shaggy approach to its characters. Now, pacing-wise, it's sometimes jagged as all hell. It's not always well-done: the way the movie barfs up Suzu's dead-mom backstory (rather more literally than you'd expect, now that I think about it, so maybe it's even a sly joke) in a Malickian montage is jarring when we've barely gotten past the long, dense infodump we started out with, though at least it's good on its intrinsic impressionistic merits and its bleak emotions have real impact; structurally, of course, the movie is so Goddamn eager to get to Belle-the-star that it presents this as a one-step process, with startlingly little time to either set up or even explore that status quo before the Dragon plot kicks in.
The movie's a bit of a mess, then, but a glorious one: the upside is that it's endlessly surprising and weird, on top of being intoxicatingly pretty. I'm not sure that I see what others have seen in terms of really heavy thematic weight, but maybe that's because it's mostly invested in what online existence means to these particular folks rather than grand social statements; there's plenty here to use as a jumping off point for whatever Internet-related subject you wanted to tackle. It's emotionally heavy, though, which may be the confusion (the unexpected climactic Rear Window riff gets inordinately heavy, if that's what you're after, fully three heavy wallops in a row). Yet one of the things I like most about it is that it's such a breath of fresh air in a modern sci-fi landscape defined by techno-dystopias. There's reason to mistrust Belle's naivete, but it works; I wouldn't trade its vision of an Internet where connection and meaning are possible just because in our world the Internet's well on its way to destroying civilization. Belle comes down unmistakably on the side of the future anyway, and if it were just a gorgeous and vibrant cartoon, that'd be enough, but the full-tilt optimism of it is so diamond-rare that I can barely restrain myself from calling it a masterpiece in spite of every flaw.