A tale as old as time uploads to virtual reality in this maximalist anime
The kid-friendly moral of Beauty and the Beast (or at least the 1991 Disney version) is a simple one: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” With the ambitious, decisively uncynical new anime movie Belle, writer-director Mamoru Hosoda adds to a long list of adaptations by updating the story for the internet age. Carefully fabricated online personas replace magical curses, and enchanted singing candlesticks transform into mewling AIs. But the director of Mirai and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time pushes the core message one step further by emphasizing how connection is a two-way street. It isn’t enough to recognize someone else’s true self without offering vulnerability in return. Produced by Hosoda’s Studio Chizu, this lush, spectacularly animated vision argues for the life-changing bonds that can develop when people shed their digital defenses.
Belle takes place in a near-future where a virtual-reality platform called U dominates the global consciousness. Singer Kaho Nakamura stars as Suzu, a shy provincial teen still grieving the death of her mother, who drowned rescuing a child from a flooding river. Suzu and her mom shared a love of music, and since the traumatic incident, Suzu has panic attacks when she tries to sing. She only regains confidence and her voice when she enters U as an avatar named Belle. With the help of her mischievous hacker friend Hiro (Lilas Ikuta), she inadvertently becomes a viral pop idol in the process.
For Suzu, U’s appeal is its capacity for reinvention — the virtual world promises escapism in the form of anonymity. (The platform’s ultimate punishment for wrongdoing is “Unveiling,” where an avatar is stripped away and the user behind it is exposed to the world.) When a misbehaving user known as the Dragon (Takeru Satoh) crashes one of Belle’s concerts, pursued by a group of warriors determined to Unveil him, Belle sets out to discover his secret.
The story of a shy girl finding her voice sounds predictable, but Belle takes the idea into surreal territory. This is a film that features a floating pop diva shedding crystals from atop a neon whale covered with speakers. The animation serves up a vivid feast for the eyes throughout, and a seamless integration of styles deepens Belle’s world-building. Glossy 3D CG animates U, while the real world is illustrated in Hosoda’s familiar traditional style.
Designed by renowned Disney animator Jin Kim, Belle resembles the studio’s quintessential princess, with a waifish face and impossibly big blue eyes. Suzu, on the other hand, looks like a typical cartoonish anime heroine, signaling the tension between her online and real selves. The Dragon cuts a twisted figure. A selling feature of U is its use of biometric data to link users’ actual bodies with their digital avatars, and the bruises tied to his real-life counterpart bloom across his hunched back like neon fungi.
Belle’s concerts explode in a smorgasbord of color and spectacle, but when the music switches off, U feels limitless but lonely. Designed by London architect Eric Wong, the omni-directional city lives in a near-perpetual twilight. Expansive Inception-style stacked buildings overwhelm the screen, but all their yellow windows are vacant. Adding to U’s amalgamation of ideas, Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon (Wolfwalkers) contributed background work to the storybook-esque lands surrounding the Dragon’s crumbling castle.
Many of the castle’s details are drawn with white outlines, making the glitchy building look like it’ll flicker out of existence any second. The virtual platform is a fascinating curiosity in Belle, although it’s never made clear how non-viral stars spend their time in U, or how one control-obsessed vigilante hijacked the creators’ powers to expose users’ identities. Perhaps intentionally, though, the real world offers a more compelling place to stay. Lingering shots of the natural world and a warm array of details, like the faded inspirational Post-It notes on Suzu’s wall, or her three-legged dog, all make Suzu’s life feel lived-in.
And Suzu is struggling through that life. Her name means “bell” in English, but as her mom’s old choir points out, she’s more like a bell cricket hiding in the shadows. She struggles to relate to her dad and classmates. The latter emotional distance gets rendered physically by the long bus and train journey Suzu makes every day to get to school. She’s surrounded by empty chairs the whole journey. Loneliness is part of her routine. Hosoda makes this consideration of space explicit, with frequent wide shots of Suzu walking home alone. Similarly, as Suzu recalls her mother’s death, the young girl her mom rescues first appears in another wide shot against total blackness. Highlighting the girl’s isolation sets up parallels between Suzu’s decision to help the Dragon with her mom’s own choice.
Such shot compositions could start to feel on the nose, but Hosoda offers a point of contrast by using the same technique to emphasize closeness. Washed in fuzzy brushstrokes, Suzu’s memory with her childhood protector Shinibou (Ryō Narita) shows the pair clustered together, surrounded by soft yellow. When Belle later bonds with the Dragon during a dance homage to the Disney film, the pair flow up together against an expanse of empty sky. The two moments have completely opposite color palettes, getting at the idea that these attachments can form both offline and on.
Hosoda’s work often considers what it means to exist in two different spaces, by playing with separate timelines and realities. Even his film Wolf Children intertwined this theme by considering the dual identities of its werewolf leads. With near-identical opening sequences, Belle’s premise feels like the updated version of Hosoda’s Summer Wars, another virtual-reality story that warns against over-integrating technology through an apocalyptic scenario. In Belle, though, the stakes are much more intimate and grounded in character growth. The fate of the universe doesn’t rest on Suzu’s shoulders; all that matters is whether she can get through to one person who needs help. The film’s climax hinges on her reconciling the disconnect between her two selves to be able to truly open up.
The idea that people online only advertise the parts of themselves they want others to see isn’t novel. Neither is the revelation that anonymity breeds spite. At times, Belle’s depiction of online judgment via overlapping dialogue and chat bubbles feels trite. Hosoda knows better than to attribute all our worst instincts solely to the internet, though. One of the film’s most inventive sequences shows Suzu quelling vicious school gossip through targeted responses, which Hosada visualizes as if she’s conquering countries in a Risk-esque hexagonal game board. The message is clear: Rumors travel whatever way they can. “The world is the same everywhere,” Suzu sighs.
Hosoda also grounds the eventual reveals about the Dragon in real life, which leads to an abrupt final-act tonal shift that he doesn’t quite pull off. What seems intended as a message of courage comes out as a misguided statement about conquering impossible situations through resilience. Given the delicate subject matter, the story ends on an unsettling note.
Still, the core of the movie is about empathy, and Hosoda’s sentimentality is compelling, even at its most overstated and earnest. Belle doesn’t shy away from online toxicity, but it advocates for a hopeful perspective on the ways the internet can connect people in meaningful, supportive ways. Hosoda deeply wants to believe that online interactions can be used for good. Because if not, what else could all this relentless online misery possibly be for?
Belle opens in American theaters on Jan. 14. Find tickets to your local theaters here.