Review: “Belle” is a stunning anime adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast”.

Review: In 'Belle,' a dazzling anime 'Beauty and the Beast'

Anime master Mamoru Hosoda makes movies that, even at their most elaborate, can reach such staggeringly emotional heights that they seem to break free of anything you’re prepared for in an animated movie — or in most kinds of movies, for that matter.

Any Japanese filmmaker skilled in fantastical animation will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Hayao Miyazaki. But the more appropriate touchstone for Hosoda may be Yasujirō Ozu. As dazzling as Hosoda’s films may be visually or conceptually, they’re rooted in simple and profound human stories.

His last film, the Oscar-nominated “Mirai,” is one of the best movies made in recent years about family. The film centered around a 4-year-old boy, who has to deal with the arrival and jealousy of his new baby sister. His middle-schooler sister visits him. The boy develops empathy and understanding through other time-traveling encounters.

Hosoda’s latest, “Belle,” The sketch is more complex. It’s an ultra-modern take on “Beauty and the Beast” that transfers the fairy tale to a digital metaverse realm called “U.” There, in a dizzying digital expanse that will satisfy any “Matrix” fan who felt let down by the virtual worlds of “The Matrix Resurrections,” its 5 billion users can adapt any persona they like.

Suzu, the 17-year old Suzu (voiced in subtitled form by Kaho Nakamura; an English dub is also available) reluctantly joins U to become Belle, an avatar that represents a more exotic and beautiful Suzu. In the U, Belle’s songs find massive stardom that’s much unlike Suzu’s own life, where one of her only friends is Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta), a computer whiz who helps craft Belle. In U, Belle finds herself drawn to the metaverse’s notorious villain called the Dragon (or the Beast) who’s hunted by a police-like force that wants peace and free-flowing commerce in U.

You might be thinking that an anime “Beauty and the Beast” turned into internet parable sounds a tad overelaborate — and about the furthest thing from the sage simplicity of Ozu. It’s indeed a lot that Hosoda is going for here, and “Beauty and the Beast” doesn’t always seem a useful form for all the ideas floating around. At times, “Belle” bends and cracks under its grand ambitions.

But the heart of Hosoda’s sincere film never falters. The film takes place in both Japan today and in the virtual U. Its foot is planted in real life. As a young girl, Suzu’s first image is of her as the mother who, in a brave act of selflessness, saves her child from a flood. Loss and grief have consumed Suzu’s childhood; her virtual transformation into Belle is a chance to free herself from some of her everyday struggles. Music was an integral part of Suzu’s relationship with her mother. That tragic backdrop — how we treat strangers — is also part of the lessons of U, where anonymity breeds good and ill. On the whole, this is a surprisingly positive view of the capacity of the internet for connection and liberation. But what’s most striking is how Hosoda marries both realities despite their vast differences. Every world sparkles. Clouds can be as beautiful as any U.

Suzu is the film’s central character. Even with all that’s going on, “Belle” is deeply attuned to its protagonist’s hurts, memories and dreams. The moment alternates between reality and virtuality, her past and present. These worlds ultimately merge in a scene of astounding catharsis — a song sung not by Belle, but Suzu — and it’s one of the most intensely beautiful moments you’re likely to see, anywhere.

“Belle,” a GKIDS release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for thematic content, violence, language and brief suggestive material. Running time: 121 minutes. Out of four stars, it gets three and a half stars.


This review has been updated with correct information about Hiroka’s voice actor. Lilas Ikuta voices her.


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