NOTE: This film was not screened for critics in the Las Vegas area.
BELLE is directed by Mamoru Hosoda. The film was released by Studio Chizu, distributed by Toho. It was released in Summer 2021 in Japan and January 2022 in the United States, in a limited release.
Suzu is a timid and nervous young girl, estranged from her father following the death of her mother. On U, a new virtual reality social media channel, Suzu becomes a superstar singer, garnering both positive and negative attention from all corners of the web, as she continues to struggle in her daily life. During her concert, she’s interrupted by a mysterious “Beast,” but who is this individual? And will Suzu be able to gain control of both her real and virtual lives?
BELLE throws a lot of interesting ideas at its viewers. It’s also beautifully animated and the English dub voice cast is fantastic (this was the version I saw, although the Japanese version subtitled in English is also being shown in the States). It’s a gorgeous movie, but frustratingly bites off more than it can chew with far too many characters and plot elements. It succeeds with its gorgeous visuals, particularly in the virtual world, but the overlong running time and overwhelming number of subplots work against the final product.
BELLE’s best element is its young female heroine, Suzu, who is relatable with her traumatic past and social awkwardness. In fact, as far as anime goes, this may be the best look at awkward teenage years and nervousness that I’ve seen in recent years. I adored Suzu as well as her virtual counterpart, the titular character, and her struggle to balance the two lives.
The virtual world building is arguably my favorite part of BELLE, creating a strange dimension of modern tech, music, fantasy elements, and just about everything in between. Music is also integral to both the real and fantasy worlds, and it makes the film all the more exciting and inviting for viewers. Aurally and visually, BELLE is a delight to experience.
The problem with BELLE is that the movie goes off in too many different directions; it’s got an abundance of uneven subplots. Suzu’s day-to-day life and juggling it with the online persona was enough, but the movie throws a bunch of half-finished ideas our way throughout its duration, and it can’t seem to decide what the central story should be. The biggest disappointment here is that Suzu mending things with her father is shafted and gets very little emphasis, with this storyline being hurriedly finished and “tacked on” at the end. Other story elements fare better, but the inconsistencies here mean it’s an “all over the place” production. The good outweighs the bad here, but it could’ve been about 20 minutes shorter with about half the subplots and a portion of the characters that made the final film.
A criticism of the American release of the film is that it’s been rated PG by the MPA, which is too tame of a rating giving the extreme and intense nature of some of the material, namely a subplot/character situation that involves domestic abuse. I wouldn’t recommend the film for younger children or the easily frightened/offended.
BELLE isn’t perfect, but it’s a decent enough anime film with some interesting ideas and it’s worth a look at nothing else.