If there’s anything to be gleaned from Belle, it’s this: Mamoru Hosoda has thoughts about the internet. The new film from the anime auteur centers around a social media app called U, a virtual reality space in which users appear as an avatar that, roughly, resembles their inner selves. The technological specifics of the device — how are these teenage characters, augmented with only a cell phone and a pair of earbuds, managing to occupy both reality and cyberspace simultaneously? — is left blessedly unexplained as Hosoda is less concerned with his science fiction paradigm than with what he wants to say. His messaging is even-handed but overstuffed, for as much trouble as the internet might cause, its potential for self-discovery and human connection is nearly boundless. In Hosoda’s vision, the internet can allow someone to be closer to their true selves than in reality, and so it’s no wonder that the superhero police (hilariously backed by a roster of sponsors that fill the screen) who patrol U mete out punishment by revealing users’ identities.
What’s frustrating, then, is that none of this is very interesting, even if his measured take is better than the technophobic finger-wagging most films about social media indulge in. The film concerns Suzu, a shy teenage girl who logs onto U and is transformed into Belle, who can sing beautifully, something Suzu herself hasn’t been able to do since the death of her mother. It’s not long before she crosses paths with the Beast, a monster covered in bruises and resembling an anime take on the Disney character, and sets about uncovering his identity. But while this futuristic recreation of Beauty and the Beast looks characteristically good, if familiar — Hosoda’s movies often look like standard anime that lacks the distinct strokes of similarly profiled peers, like Shinkai’s beautiful skies or Yuasa’s, well, everything — these sections come off as unimaginative and overbearing compared to the sweet, fully-realized mundane happenings back in reality. The teenage love triangles and familial relationships that make up Suzu’s offline life could easily be their own movie, with any given scene between Suzu and her computer nerd friend Hiroka holding more life than any of the supposedly exciting stuff happening online. The film’s best scene, a long static shot that finds characters exiting and reentering the frame during an awkward conversation, is uproariously funny but makes the film’s return to virtual space afterwards all the more disappointing.
As its A-plot reaches its ending, Hosoda rejects the simple, obvious bow to which the story was seemingly leading in favor of a ridiculous conclusion to the Beast’s mystery that allows the director to make yet another heavy-handed statement on 21st century living to cheap, maudlin ends. In seeking to further combine the movie’s threads narratively — as if their connection weren’t already abundantly clear — Hosoda decides upon a baffling, ruinous ending that exposes Belle as a leaden mess of abject sentimentality.
Originally published as part of NYFF 2021 — Dispatch 4.