It’s difficult being a teenager and especially so in the digital age ruled by social media. Director Mamoru Hosoda deftly explores the different shades of this topic by wrapping up this particular story in both fairytale and sci-fi elements. Hosoda tackles a lot – both technically and narratively – but he and his crew somehow pull it off to produce one of the most stunning animated features in recent memory.
Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) struggles to cope with the loss of her mother, who died after saving a young child from a raging river. This grief makes Suzu become distant from her father, envy the popular girl from her school and lose her ability to sing. At the behest of her tech-savvy best friend Hiro (Rira Ikuta), Suzu signs up to virtual reality platform ‘U’, which features five million users freely roaming around as a virtual avatar. In this reality, Suzu becomes Belle, a beautiful diva who can sing and capture the hearts of millions of users.
The world of U is simply breathtaking. Each frame is a kaleidoscope of colour packed with little details that pop off the screen. The artists and animators convincingly sell the idea that this is a densely-populated world, too, with a variety of fantastical characters floating around the virtual space throughout impossibly large spaces. Incredible sights, such as giant whales with speakers on their backs swimming through clouds of confetti, are uncommon in U and make this a world the audience wants to visit. The animation within U takes on a more 3D/CG style, whilst scenes in the real world harken back to traditional 2D hand-drawn animation. It’s a clever choice that distinguishes the two realities whilst letting Studio Chizu show off their incredible artistic talents.
A lot of the little details in U are baked within the narrative, too, reflecting what the online landscape looks and feels like. Most decisions the lead characters make are met with an onslaught of comments and reactions from different U users – including supportive fans, angry haters and everything in between. Hosoda purposefully shies away from making a decision on whether online platforms are good or bad and instead offers a matter-of-fact insight into the positive and negative aspects of the digital age. Thankfully you won’t find any cringe-worthy commentary or jokes about social media here but instead witty and honest reflections – one hilarious moment sees a self-imposed superhero arrive onto the scene followed by a wall of sponsorship logos.
Just as we’re offered an honest portrayal of hanging out in online spaces, Hosoda explores the many aspects of being a late-teen in high school. Characters deal with anxiety and insecurities that come at such an age: popularity, family, figuring out who you are, crushes and love. Thanks to strong vocal performances and animation, you’ll be laughing and crying throughout the runtime. One particular scene had the entire audience howling with laughter thanks to some top-tier key frames and poses.
Did I mention that there is a Beauty and the Beast theme woven throughout the main narrative? And that there are musical numbers key to the story? This is easily Hosoda’s most ambitious project to date, but miraculously he manages to naturally tie them together alongside all the other story elements. The Beauty and the Beast thread is a clever modernisation of the fairytale that will leave you guessing where the story will go. This particular element is introduced surprisingly late into the film, but to discuss this thread would ruin some of the narrative surprises in store later on. The soundtrack is just spectacular. The original score features a mix of classical and techno-inspired tracks, but Belle’s songs are all showstopping earworms that will surely make their way onto your Spotify playlist. One particular song deserves to be featured at next year’s Oscars.
Belle does build towards some shockingly dark places, but the film is ultimately hopeful. When most on-screen stories love making a point about the horrors of the internet, Hosoda shows how wonderful and powerful it can be without shying away from the dangers of social media. He also understands how virtual realities affect the real world and vice versa but emphasises the importance of our true selves by centring the film’s climax around the characters outside of U. Belle is arguably Hosoda’s best feature to date and is undoubtedly set to be a modern animated classic.
Belle screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival.