DIRECTOR: Mamoru Hosoda

CAST (ENGLISH VERSION): Kylie McNeill, Paul Castro Jr., Ben Lepley, Jessica DiCicco, Manny Jacinto, Brandon Engman, Hunter Schafer, Chace Crawford, Ellyn Stern, Andrew Kishino, Noelle McGrath, David Chen, Jessica Gee George, Barbara Goodson, Martha Harms, Wendee Lee, Julie Nathanson, Kiff VandenHeuvel

CAST (JAPANESE VERSION): Kaho Nakamura, Takeru Satoh, Kōji Yakusho, Rira Ikuta, Ryō Narita, Shōta Sometani, Tina Tamashiro, Toshiyuki Morikawa, Fuyumi Sakamoto, Kenjiro Tsuda, Mami Koyama, Mamoru Miyano, Michiko Shimizu, Ryoko Moriyama, Sachiyo Nakao, Yoshimi Iwasaki, Sumi Shimamoto, Ken Ishiguro

RUNNING TIME: 121 mins

CERTIFICATE: PG

BASICALLY…: A shy teenager (McNeill/Nakamura) reverts into a virtual world where she reinvents herself as an adored pop singer…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

To call Studio Chizu, the anime production company co-founded by notable director Mamoru Hosoda (of cult hits like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars), the DreamWorks Animation to Studio Ghibli’s Pixar is almost an insult, because it implies that their quality is somehow less refined and imaginative than that of Hayao Miyazaki’s world-famous studio. With a Hosoda-directed feature line-up that includes Wolf Children, The Boy and the Beast, Mirai (which to date has earned the studio’s only Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature) and now Belle, Studio Chizu has certainly won enough appraisal from critics and audiences alike to be considered an equal to the much more recognisable Studio Ghibli – and it’s about to get much more recognition thanks to Belle, a beautiful slice of sci-fi drama that’s like a pop culture-lite version of Ready Player One, but far more moving and emotional.

Our main character is a high school girl named Suzu (voiced by Kylie McNeill in the English dub, and by Kaho Nakamura in the Japanese original) who, after the traumatic death of her mother during childhood, has become shy and emotionally distant, struggling to even connect with her father. She soon discovers the existence of U, a virtual reality world where anyone can create a brand-new avatar for themselves using biometric technology; Suzu chooses to live as Bell, a beautiful pink-haired being who slowly entrances the world of U with her powerful singing voice, turning the virtual person into an overnight pop superstar. However, Suzu/Bell soon learns of the existence of a feared virtual creature known as “the Dragon” (Paul Castro Jr./Takeru Satoh), and becomes curious to uncover their true identity before they can be eradicated by a group of ruthless virtual vigilantes.

There’s a lot to admire about Belle, from its intriguing story to the simplistic yet likeable characters to the musical score, and most of all its stunning animation which cleverly alternates in style depending on what realm we are currently visiting. In the “real world”, it is that typical hand-drawn anime look which, although still beautiful to look at, is relatively standard; in the world of U, however, there is a distinctive lean towards CG-assisted graphics which give it an extra layer of detail that’s immediately recognisable, and you notice it in everything including the designs and movements of the characters, the virtual environment that they inhabit, and even the way in which certain speaking patterns are adhered to. There are parts of this world where you can also feel the strong influence of other major animation studios like Disney; one section of the movie in particular is very clearly paying strong homage to Beauty and the Beast, right down to the movie using some frames that are almost shot-by-shot the same as in that animated classic, which to some may make this the more preferable remake than the actual live-action one from a few years ago.

The animation is stellar enough to hook you into this world and the story we’re following, often to a point where you are on the verge of generating a few tears from the sheer power of its drama. The musical soundtrack is key to generating that kind of emotional response, with some songs performed so powerfully (and, again, set to that incomparable animation) that even I was starting to feel a small lump in the back of my throat by the end of it. You could argue that it’s all part of the manipulation, which is fair to state, but you are enjoying spending time with most of these characters and learning a little more about them as the movie goes along, so a lot of it does feel earned.

It isn’t perfect, though; as marvellous as it is to see the world of U in action, one wonders if it would have benefitted from showing more than what we get, just to expand upon its central ideas and capabilities. There is also a rather large section at the end of the movie which goes on for a little longer than it probably should, especially as it comes right after a pretty major climactic moment which feels like a natural place to start wrapping things up. Additionally, there are one or two supporting players who don’t feel entirely necessary to the overall plot, like a popular girl at Suzu’s school (voiced in the English dub by Euphoria breakout Hunter Schafer) who is just kind of there; she’s not annoying in any way, but you could easily write her out and the movie really wouldn’t be all that different.

For the most part, though, Belle is a stunning piece of work that’s bound to wow a lot of viewers (especially those that are seriously into anime) with its beautiful animation, strong emotional centre, and some interesting virtual world exploration that, again, is like a more memorable Ready Player One.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Belle is a visually stunning anime experience from director Mamoru Hosoda, who combines stellar animation with a powerful emotional core to create an engaging, if imperfect, virtual experience.

Belle is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

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