Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. GKIDS releases the film in theaters on Friday, January 14.
“Beauty and the Beast” meets online bullying in a hyper-modern anime riff on the classic fairy tale (or at least the Disney version of it), as “Miraï” director Mamoru Hosoda pushes his boundless imagination to new extremes in a visually dazzling musical about how J-Pop can save the world. If that seems like too much ground for a cartoon to cover in the span of a two-hour coming-of-age story, keep in mind that Hosoda has a knack for reaching familiar places in rivetingly unexpected fashions. Case in point: The heroine of “Belle” enters the movie atop a flying humpback whale that’s barnacled with hundreds of stereo speakers.
It’s a fitting introduction to a film that wows you with its wild vision of internet age identity even when it doesn’t reveal anything that isn’t already self-evident. But Hosoda is a born maximalist with a big heart, and while his most ambitious moonshot to date isn’t quite able to arrange all of its moving parts together along the same orbit, it’s impressive to see how many of them remain moving all the same.
At its core, “Belle” is a delirious fusion between a tale as old as time and technology that’s yet to be invented — one set in a world where everyone is desperate to be visible, but deeply afraid of being seen. Still reeling from the death of her mother, 17-year-old Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura) is such an introverted wallflower that her demented hacker BFF Hiroka (Rina Izuta) refers to her as the dark side of the moon. The mousy Suzu doesn’t think she deserves to be described in such grandiose terms; a young former music lover who hasn’t been able to find her voice since her mom drowned saving a random child from a riptide, she thinks of herself instead as “a bell cricket singing in the shadows” (Suzu translates to “bell” in Japanese). There must be more than this provincial life, but Suzu is too withdrawn to explore what that might be, and her emotionally distant dad (the great Kôji Yakusho in a small role) isn’t going to be much help.
That’s when Suzu discovers the world of “U.” How is it that she hadn’t known about a fully immersive social media service (with five billion users!) that invites people to be reborn as avatars that are determined from biometric analyses of their inner strengths? It’s best not to ask such questions about the ins and outs of this virtual reality landscape; nobody can be told what the Matrix is, and the same applies to U. Suffice to say that it looks like an eye-popping cross between the digital world of OZ from Hosoda’s “Summer Wars” and the endless downtown mind city of the lowest dream level from “Inception.”
Unlike the ruined wasteland in Christopher Nolan’s film, however, U is teeming with a ridiculous array of characters who range from starfish to luchadores to a squadron of self-appointed Justices who dress in matching white superhero outfits and police the cybersphere by effectively doxxing anyone they deem unworthy. At the top of their most wanted list: A hunched MMA-fighting cow monster named Dragon — but not so affectionately referred to as “the Beast.” Little do the Justices know that their quarry broods away his time in a floating castle on the outskirts of a glitchy wooded maze and guards his deepest secret inside a bushel of binary roses.
But the Beast is yesterday’s news in the U-niverse now that everyone’s obsessed with the platform’s newest superstar, a radiant singer named Belle (whose absolute banger of a debut single is performed by the J-pop group millennium parade). Belle, of course, is our dear Suzu IRL, though only to a certain extent; her avatar’s pink-haired and pointy-nosed anime perfection is owed to Suzu’s prettiest classmate, whose face she borrowed out of an abiding sense of insecurity. Everybody has a secret, and sometimes it feels like the only way to survive on the internet is to keep everybody else from wanting to know what yours might be. If only computers gave us more than just two options: “Cancel” or “Okay.”
For all of its supercharged visual spectacle and the frisson that Hosoda creates from threading a fairy tale story through the ugliness of the online world, this is mighty familiar material for anime fans who’ve been looking for digital connections since the wired days of “Serial Experiments Lain,” or JRPG players who’ve grappled with the malignant darkness of our shadow selves in the “Persona” series for hundreds of hours at a time. The beauty of “Belle,” however strained it can be, is that Hosoda sincerely believes in the potential upside of social media — he recognizes that most people on the internet are looking for someone to feel their pain rather than someone to inflict it upon (a subtle distinction, easily confused). Many of them just don’t quite realize that. Not even Belle herself, whose curiosity in the Beast is only explained in the most abstract terms, and isn’t quite strong enough to support the obligatory ballroom dancing sequence.
The fact that Suzu’s mom died saving a total stranger is the kind of first act detail that can be easily lost in a movie that unfolds like a technicolor parade of stray ideas; on top of everything else, “Belle” also makes time for several unexpectedly affecting romantic subplots, a Greek chorus of middle-aged women who share a big secret, and a scene in which Suzu’s social circle is represented as a fiery game of “Risk.” But no matter how many things are happening between the film’s analog and online worlds, Hosoda constantly returns to the selfless philosophy embodied by Suzu’s mom: The concept that a stranger’s life might be afforded the same value that we typically reserve for our own. It’s an idea that exists in violent contradiction to how the internet usually works, which is why it manages to cut through the noise and hold this movie together even when its finale blurs the border that separates the U from “reality” by introducing a handful of pivotal new characters.
Not all of Hosoda’s ideas manage to hold as much water, and some (particularly the positive implication that pain can be a source of online strength) are so glancingly explored that including them here does more harm than good. The flimsier those concepts are, the flimsier the drama is to support them. The connection between the Dragon and their actual identity is poignant but underdeveloped in a way that makes the “Beauty and the Beast” of it all feel shoehorned into a movie that only needs that aspect of it for its metaphor. Meanwhile, the relationships between Suzu and the people she knows IRL are rendered so beautifully in the little time Hosoda affords them that it’s hard not to wish he’d scale back on sensory-overload spectacle and let real life do the talking. It’s telling that the film’s best scene is contained within a single, motionless shot inside of an ordinary train station.
Nevertheless, “Belle” earns much of its charm from the sheer mania of Hosoda’s mind. The film may be stretched too thin as the real world and the U pull it in opposite directions, but that same tug-of-war between basic human feelings and the impossibly colorful orgy of emotions they explodes into online — the way it frays on both ends, and makes it hard for the center to hold — is also what allows “Belle” to feel so true even as it falls deeper and deeper into fairy tale logic. If the moral of this story is ultimately a simple one, at least Suzu learns it in a way too novel to forget: The internet can give anyone a voice, but it’s only a beautiful place when people actually hear each other.
“Belle” premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. GKids will release it in the United States later this year.