I went to see Mamoru Hosoda’s interpretation of Beauty and the Beast on the big screen solely because I recently enjoyed catching up with his 2006 debut (as a sole directorial voice) The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. That introduction to Hosoda’s work should have primed me for the sci-fi spin the Japanese animator would put on that classic fairy-tale romance, but Belle was not at all the film I expected it to be. Belle is a lot less about Beauty and the Beast and a lot more about The Internet than I was prepared for, which is fine by me, since I’m generally a huge sucker for Internet Age cinema anyway. In this instance, Hosoda debates the merits & limitations of replacing in-the-flesh community with online engagement with the world at large. He also uses the dreamscape visualizations of a pure cyberworld and the digi-humanoid avatars who populate it as an excuse to fill the screen with fun, excessively cute imagery for its own sake. The result is a lot more exciting than a straight anime adaptation of Beauty and the Beast likely would have been, so it’s probably for the best that its supposed source material only accounts for roughly 15% of its sprawling plot.
The titular Belle is the online avatar for an anonymous, unpopular high school student who instantly becomes famous as a pop star after logging into the metaverse world of “U”. Futuristic “bodysharing” technology allows U’s billions of users to be fully immersed in the senses & sensations of life online. People still go to work & school in the physical world, but most social interaction & international celebrity is experienced in the digital one – like in The Congress, or like on Twitter. Within U, Belle is the pop icon du jour, but she finds that she receives just as much cruelty from comment section trolls as she does adoration from her fans. It’s still preferable to interacting with peers or adults in her real life, though, where her social anxiety and the very public history of her familial loss weighs heavily on her heart. And at least as Belle she gets to wield her social capital for real world good: attempting to heal the broken heart of whatever similarly lonely teen is raging through U as The Beast. Belle is both optimistic about and critical of what online community can achieve, and all the plot’s near-infinite twists & turns feel like a struggle to find a balance between that digital community and the one in “real” life.
I’m generally skeptical of modern anime’s need to supplement its traditional hand-drawn animation with CG backdrops & effects. Hosoda gets away with it here by setting his coming-of-age sci-fi plot within a digital cyberworld, leaning into the uncanniness of the corner-cutting CG instead of excusing it for budgetary reasons. Seeing it contrasted against a never-ending parade of trailers for shitty American cartoons in the theater certainly helped it stand out as an aesthetic object as well. At least it’s constantly trying to look beautiful in every frame, as opposed to just seeking untapped IP sources that could be voiced by unenthused celebrites like Chris Pratt. If anything, Belle is beautiful to the point of being sappy, but I cried at its emotional climax because I’m a total sap. I can’t recall the last time an animated American film stirred up that emotional of a response in me purely through its visual artistry. Maybe 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse? And even that example has a much more limited imagination in straying from its already popular source material.
It’s probably for the best that Belle isn’t a direct Beauty and the Beast adaptation. That French fairy tale already has a masterpiece adaptation in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version, a beautifully animated adaptation in Disney’s 1991 version, and a horrific imbalance between flesh & CGI in Disney’s 2017 version. Hosoda borrows a few images & relationship dynamics from that frequently trodden tale, but he mostly uses Belle as an excuse to reflect on what community, celebrity, privacy, and bodily identity are going to mean in our near digi-future as most of our interpersonal interactions are ported online. I’ll always champion movies that sincerely, creatively engage with internet culture as a valuable cinematic subject. Even so, this one is more beautiful to gaze at than most, and I’m almost curious enough about what the English-language versions of its pop songs sound like to rewatch it dubbed while it’s still playing in theaters.