“You can’t start over in the reality, but you can start over in U,” says the female voice welcoming users to the sophisticated virtual-reality application where Mamoru Hosoda’s astonishingly poignant new animated feature, “Belle,” materializes.
That enticingly escapist proposition, to leave behind one’s mundane existence and transcend into a parallel realm in a new form, feels less like near-future sci-fi and more like thoughtful commentary on the types of double lives we are already part of on our devices.
In the world of U, a person’s AS or avatar manifests from biometric information, but also, it seems, based on personality traits expressed in the physicality of the new entity. To an extent, this is the most truthful version of the self, where one’s hurt, scars, talents, and inner beauty are openly revealed for those in this universe of five billion individuals to see.
Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura in the original Japanese and Kylie McNeill in the English dub), a painfully introverted teenager, becomes the digital pop star named Belle in the virtual world of U, giving her back her zeal for singing, lost after her mother’s heroically tragic death. A montage of Suzu’s childhood shows her playing with smartphones, so entering U feels natural for the Gen Z girl.
Belle’s viral fame, however, leads to users worldwide eager to discover the face behind the mask, which makes her reconsider this distinctly marked duality; as her tech-savvy friend Hiro (Lilas Ikuta/Jessica DiCicco) points out, stardom is built on “mixed reception.” Angry mobs of commenters, smartly depicted as suffocating comic-book text bubbles, take a toll on what little self-confidence she possesses.
When a bruised and livid Dragon, a mysteriously aggressive avatar, begins to wreak havoc in U, Suzu, as Belle, recognizes in this frightening creature a shared disillusionment and becomes infatuated with learning why his way of communicating sorrow is destruction. That Hosoda grounds his film on “Beauty and the Beast,” the original tale but more decidedly the 1991 Disney take on it, fuses well with the multiple dichotomies at play.
Hosoda makes no effort to hide the homage, as he directly references the Disneyfied version of this story, taking creative licenses with some of its most recognizable elements, such as the ballroom scene. In “Belle,” this intimate encounter between monster and damsel, which marks a shift in their relationship, transpires in a striking, swoon-worthy aerial dance. Macho villain Gaston crystallizes in the muscular Justin (Toshiyuki Morikawa/Chace Crawford), one of the superhero-like entities entrusted with protecting this realm.
From a design perspective, “Belle” is Hosoda’s most ambitious endeavor to date. U, an infinite and brightly colored space devoid of gravity where whales fly and the horizon line doesn’t function in relation to logical directions, is the brainchild of architect Eric Wong, whom Hosoda, fittingly, found while searching online.
On the other hand, Disney animator and character designer Jin Kim (“Hercules,” “Tangled”) appears to have crafted Belle to resemble a timeless Disney princess, with flowing pink hair, freckles, and magazine-ready gowns. Melding the technologically futuristic setting with classically conceived figures is in line with the theme of contrast.
Hosoda’s art has long revolved about the idea of alternative realities, whether it’s an online battle with real-world repercussions (“Summer Wars”) or in magical kingdoms (“The Boy and the Beast” or “Mirai,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination). All of these feature characters with alter egos or presenting as another iterations of themselves — a baby sister seen as an adolescent, or a father in beastly form.
But while those recurrent Hosoda tropes are exponentially more pronounced in “Belle,” the use of music as narrative device provides a singular emotional prowess. Acting as a co-lyricist here, Hosoda created Belle’s songs (with Taisei Iwasaki and Nakamura, who performed them) to function as they do in musicals. The tracks are not only anthemic in quality but also perspicacious in the insight they provide about Suzu. Taken together, these are surely the best songs from an anime feature since Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name.”
There’s no sugarcoated falsehood in Hosoda’s approach to the tough issues raised in the latter third of “Belle” about parent-child relationships, neglect, and abandonment. The director trusts that these subjects will resonate when delivered in a work of art as ravishing as it is profound, even if its many layers make it run a tad long. Once again, internationally produced animation demonstrates the medium’s dramatic possibilities.
One miraculously indelible moment, where all of Hosoda’s storytelling faculties are on display at full force, comes as Suzu reclaims her voice in a climatic performance that leaves one breathless, jaw on the floor, and possibly in tears. Animation has rarely ever been so spellbinding as in this singularly moving sing-along. Once it pulls you into its radiance and melancholic warmth, you feel like the healing powers of its tunes have washed over you.
An aesthetically imaginative and affectingly breathtaking fairytale for our modern world, “Belle” envelops you first with its clever mechanics and youthful preoccupations. But as the reflective subtext comes to light, it extends an invitation to reconnect with others offline and to beware the comfort of these surrogate identities. Though they indeed present a playground to avoid the troubles of our real plane of existence, they are not the whole picture.
With “Belle,” Hosoda doesn’t issue a lament about the internet’s voracious power to dictate our social order and engagement with the analog world. Instead, he predicates an uplifting if cautious outlook on its beneficial possibilities. As much as the human condition, the good and certainly the bad, has made a transition to these intangible platforms of communication, the power remains in the hands of those behind the screen.
“Belle” opens in US theaters Jan. 14.