Despite being an ageless fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast has been associated with just one studio for the past 30 years: Disney. So, how do producers wishing to put their own touch on it keep fans from remembering Gaston in his classic yellow gown, guzzling eggs to music? Belle, Mamoru Hosoda‘s interpretation of the narrative, is obviously conscious of this. What is his remedy? Don’t shy away from it; embrace it: and over one sequence in Hosoda’s beautifully rendered animation is a shot-for-shot tribute to the 1991 Disney film. If that’s not enough, Hosoda also solicited the aid of a Disney Studios experienced animator/character artist, Jin Kim.
The line is drawn there, though, with a few visual indications. Belle is a different take on the French fairy tale, possibly even more original and charming than Disney’s.
In actuality, the eponymous “Belle” is 17-year-old Suzu Naito, a shy and disturbed Japanese high schooler who buried her youthful enthusiasm for music as a result of a terrible occurrence. Suzu’s vocal range reappears on the Internet, though, and she becomes an overnight superstar in the digital world of “U.” Belle is a musical, as the title indicates, and while the score isn’t destined for Broadway, the score — and Belle’s unearthly voice — is one you’ll want to return. The music must be convincingly good in order for a tale to sell you on the concept of a singing viral phenomenon.
However, Belle isn’t the only Internet sensation on the street. For months, a tenacious, monster-like avatar known as “The Dragon” has been wreaking havoc on the U community. When he and Belle meet paths, though, she is strangely attracted to him. As a result, Beauty meets her Beast with a digital twist in the twenty-first century.
It’s not the first time Hosoda has included a connection to Beauty and the Beast in his work, which includes Digimon: The Movie, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Mirai. Its impact may also be seen in films like The Boy and the Beast from 2015, to mention a few. Belle is the most obvious adaptation, yet despite the fact that both the source story and Disney are clear designs, the film continues to travel in surprising places.
But that is not to say that Hosoda aficionados will be startled by the structure and themes of Belle: it contains all of the trademark Hosoda elements, right down to a gathering of people being gathered together around laptop for the big reveal. The director’s continued conviction in technology, notably the Internet, as a force for social good is most apparent. Though there are a few brief remarks about the detrimental influence of being an online native on young females, Hosoda’s idealistic vision of the Internet hasn’t altered since he harnessed the power of email to defeat the Big Bad in the first Digimon movie 20 years ago.
As wonderful as this is, it’s possible that an opportunity has been missed. Hosoda leverages the shattering effect (also known as ‘catfishing’) that occurs between our actual and online personas to intriguing (and often funny) effect, but the referenced passing remarks may go a bit further back.
The philosophy of the Suzu/Belle difference may have been better explored in a more pessimistic film to investigate the effect that social media and digital enhancement has on body image, beauty standards, and the terrible backside of famous statuses for females in a more cynical film. Instead, with the exception of a few rotten apples, the world of U is generally a pleasant place of joyful distraction.
Suzu is still significantly more developed gradually than other Belles: profoundly timid and lonely, yet longing for expression and purpose, which drives her to solve The Dragon’s genesis mystery. Belle is as tonally well-balanced as any classic Disney picture, while dealing with some fairly grim subject matter, especially for younger audiences. One sequence in particular, in which two of Suzu’s friends try uncomfortably to proclaim their mutual affections, has some brilliantly energetic physical humor, primarily done via nonverbal cues alone.
Throughout his career, Hosoda has seldom made a mistake, and Belle is one of his most spectacular dances ever. Following critical accolades at film festivals (including a 14-minute standing ovation at Cannes), the picture may easily follow in the footsteps of Beauty and the Beast at the Academy Awards. Perhaps there’s a reason why directors like Hosoda keep returning to the story of Belle and the Beast.
Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle premiered in Japanese theaters on July 16 as Ryu to Sobakasu no Hime (roughly “The Dragon and the Princess of Freckles,”) will open in US theaters on January 14, 2022.