Outside of the Bible and William Shakespeare, it’s hard to think of any story that has been adapted more often to film and television than Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s fairy tale La Belle et la bête. There have been at least thirteen major movie versions of the story produced since 1946, and far too many made-for-television movies and animated specials and series for me to keep track of. From Jean Cocteau to the Disney Renaissance to, of course, a Twilight-esque modern YA romance starring Vanessa Hudgens (yes, really), it seems every generation and every continent on the planet wants to plant their flag on this tale as old as time.
So, of course, it was only a matter of time until we got a retelling of the story that integrated our Web 2.0-dominated culture into its narrative, and one brought to life through anime. And look at that, we have one that tackles both! In fact, it’s kind of surprising that we’ve waited so long for a prominent Japanese animator to mount a version of this story on the scale that Academy Award-nominee Mamoru Hosoda did just last year with Belle.
But then, I suppose we shouldn’t be, since Hosoda is a master of go-for-broke animated melodramas and previously explored the promise and pitfalls of digital spaces in Summer Wars as well as the attraction of beauty to beast in Wolf Children. But nothing in his previous features come even close to the scope and technological wizardry of Belle, matched only by Raya and the Last Dragon as the most visually splendid animated film of 2021. “U,” the online social network in Belle, deploys colorful state-of-the-art 3D as a contrast to the more muted traditional cel animation of the real world, packed with background details and a variety of colorful avatars in every frame of this massive online space.
This kind of execution was assisted by experienced animators from other studios, like Cartoon Saloon (responsible for Wolfwalkers,my favorite animated film of 2020) on background animation and Disney Animation Studios veteran Jin Kim on the virtual character designs, and it shows. The world of “U” provides a believable sense of escapism yearned for by shy heroine Suzu Naito, who used to enjoy singing and performing as a child until she saw her mother die saving a stranger from drowning, filling her with resentment and a pervasive feeling of inferiority into her adolescence.
Encouraged by her more internet-savvy friend Hiroka Betsuyaku, she joins “U” under the alias “Bell,” and finds herself with a newfound confidence to sing again and becomes an online superstar practically overnight. I… guess this is a future when a large portion of the world widely embraces J-Pop? My inability to connect with this kind of music is definitely a “me” problem, and I imagine fans will enjoy Bell’s performances more than I did. It’s a thing you have to just accept and run with; a genre whose all-time bestselling single “Soba ni Iru ne” and bestselling album Hatsukoi topped out at around ten million total sales each will capture the hearts of several billion people united on a single social media network in the near future.
This disconnect happens often in Belle, where the core emotions of identity and duality expressed through digital spaces are the most profound throughline in a sprawling story that seems unsure of where it wants to go or what it wants to focus on or how to meaningfully connect Suzu’s teenage insecurities in the real world with the heightened emotions and parasocial dangers of her online life as Bell. Thankfully, the narrative snaps into focus when she meets “The Dragon,” our Beast analogue who of course is hiding a tender heart under his fearsome exterior. From there, their relationship progresses more or less similarly with the added complication of the Beauty also sporting a different look that who she is on the inside this time.
It’s an effective foundation for a fresh take on the material; are Bell and The Dragon really seeing each other for who they are, or are they both engaging in a mutual catfishing scheme for to feed into their own social hang-ups? Then again, who’s to say that these online personas aren’t “the real versions” of both avatars, finally able to express their true selves without the constraints of the tangible world? How these issues are resolved are surprising, and may even disappoint more ardent fans of the classic story, but it works for this premise.
These are profound themes to explore in a familiar register to make it seem new and exciting for a modern generation, and are very much what Hosoda is most interested in. Less so are its forays into cyberbullying, modern celebrity, and even the mystery of The Dragon’s “real” identity. I don’t know why filmmakers who want to set their stories in social media milieus feel the need to touch on every aspect of it that has captured the cultural zeitgeist as opposed to just exploring one element of living online, especially since Hosoda breaks from most of his peers by optimistically portraying the arc of her central character as evidence that large online spaces can lead to greater human connection and intimacy.
Belle practically bursts at the seams with music, sights, characters, subplots, and thematic observations about The World We Live In. Your mileage will vary on how much of these surrounding aspects of his ambitious production are “for you,” but since the heart of it rings true for everyone, this messy but creative new take on one of the most familiar stories ever succeeds at staking itself out as a journey ultimately worth taking.