‘Belle’ Review: Reality’s Beautiful Bite

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A teenager in rural Japan finds online fame through a virtual concert in Mamoru Hosoda’s latest animated feature

When stardom hits in “Belle,” it does so with otherworldly force—a teenage singer’s debut concert draws a crowd of approximately 200 million. The venue really is otherworldly, though, a virtual-reality site called U, and the newly minted diva is an avatar named Belle, the glittering cyberspace projection of an unhappy high-schooler, Suzu, who lives her real-world life in a small rural town in Japan. This ambitious anime feature by Mamoru Hosoda juxtaposes the two worlds as Suzu makes her way through a troubled adolescence, and the story includes an elaborate riff on “Beauty and the Beast.” There’s too much plot for the film to manage, but its heart, and sumptuous art, are so firmly in the right place that its appeal comes through sweet and clear. (A GKIDS production, “Belle” is playing in theaters in a subtitled version, which I saw for review, and also in a dubbed version, which might be more accessible for young audiences.)

In Mr. Hosoda’s previous feature, the 2018 Oscar-nominated “Mirai,” the 4-year-old hero, Kun, is lonely because his baby sister has taken his place at the center of his family. Suzu’s sadness has deeper roots; she’s been inconsolable since her mother died years ago. Kun’s loneliness grows until he comes upon a magic garden where he encounters visitors from his family’s past and future alike. Suzu’s refuge is more contemporary, evoking the sort of metaverse alternatives to mere reality that Google, Apple, Oculus and who-knows-whatulus may be cooking up for our online future.

Visionary renderings of cyberspace have become a staple of sci-fi films, from the trashy but shrewdly prophetic “Johnny Mnemonic” in 1995 unto “The Matrix” in all its iterations. (Keanu Reeves was the star in both cases.) Suzu’s avatar is a bright-faced, freckle-cheeked and princess-begowned newcomer to a global stage that’s as thrilling as it is ephemeral, and who’s to begrudge Suzu the pleasure? Suddenly she’s part of a new community—five billion users who don’t think they’re being used, occupants of a zillion-points-of-light universe filled with shimmering cities, fanciful creatures and flittering artifacts. (“I’m an AI,” a little white apparition chirps. “I know everything.”) But the online world of U—as in Another You—isn’t paradise. Suzu’s concert is crashed by a monstrous dragon, simply called the Dragon, who could be readily and correctly mistaken for the Beast opposite Suzu’s Beauty. She doesn’t make that connection. Still, Suzu sees that the Dragon is in pain, and she feels it deeply.

The clash of elements and themes can be unsettling, even in a movie about feelings that are unsettled in the extreme. The fate of the symbolic Dragon, pursued to his castle by self-righteous cybervigilantes, is suddenly upstaged by Suzu’s literal-minded determination to find the human soul mate behind the suffering avatar. Her quest then becomes a detective story, with a succession of arbitrary twists and turns, that leads her to an upscale residential neighborhood in Tokyo. There, in a sequence seemingly plugged in from another film, she quickly locates and uncovers a startling, if clumsily staged, case of child abuse.

But “Belle” has the courage of its clumsiness, which may be the price of several eloquent moments that pop up abruptly, almost out of nowhere. In one of them a battered kid repeats the word “help” scornfully, and more times than you can count, by way of denouncing adults who talk a good game about being helpful but do nothing in the end. And part of the film’s impact comes from the contrast between its two visual modes. Suzu’s life at home and in school is rendered in the gentle, even nostalgic style of what appears to be hand-drawn animation, while the explosive, computer-generated cyberspace images bespeak the state of many young people’s online lives.

The paradox, of course, in the film as in what passes for reality, is that the potential perils of the online experience—the fragmentation, randomness and easy-access anonymity—are what makes it so seductive to young minds. In that context, it’s all the more dramatic when Suzu, via Belle, reveals her true identity to her legions of idolatrous followers. Mr. Hosoda’s film won’t wean its own followers from their phones, tablets and screens, and isn’t meant to. What it may manage to do, without a lot of preaching, is remind them of the power of authenticity. It isn’t Belle’s costumes, bling or celebrity that people find enchanting. It’s Suzu herself, singing her own unadorned song.

Courtesy : Wall Street Journal

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