‘Belle’ and Its Beastly Execution.

The only tale as old as time shown in Mamoru Hosoda’s ‘Belle‘ is that of a film struggling so deeply to find itself and what it’s about. For a film that revolves heavily around social media and the line between one’s real and virtual self, ‘Belle‘ is a film that feels as though it is constantly searching for an identity. In these two hours, there is a constant clashing of stories that never really seem to resolve. The praise-worthy thing to say would be that the film trusts its audience so much that it leaves these stories hanging loosely purely so the audience would connect them themselves however that is never the case. This is a film that I genuinely cannot tell you the basic premise of because as soon as the movie starts to commit to a plotline, it shifts to a newer one and ultimately ends in a bizarrely unsatisfying way.

major spoilers for Mamoru Hosoda’s ‘Belle‘ are featured in this review. be sure to catch the digital release of ‘Belle‘ on May 3rd and make your own opinion.

A huge part of the supposed charm this movie has is the fact that it’s inspired by the 1991 Disney classic ‘Beauty and the Beast’. A film that undoubtedly knows exactly what it is, an epic, intimate romance. The story is literally built on the foundation of true romantic love yet ‘Belle’ never explores that concept at all. The protagonist Suzu, a shy 17-year old girl struggling through the depression caused by her mother’s passing feels emotionally attracted to Kei/The Beast, a boy suffering through a horrible, abusive life caused by his father, both using ‘U’ to escape and express themselves, it is a great concept. There is so much potential there that the movie never explores. Suzu has a massive crush on her childhood friend Shinobu whom the movie makes us think is the person behind ‘The Beast’. Suzu herself entertains this idea at one point when her and The Beast dance together in a digital ballroom. Shinobu is supposed to be the main love interest yet he’s arguably the least interesting character in this movie. Once it’s revealed that he is in fact not the Beast, he loses all depth as a character. The decision to make The Beast a 14-year old boy unrelated to Suzu’s life entirely left me truly dumbfounded, especially since the movie asks you to recontextualize every encounter they’ve had up till now. The romance element of the story is automatically lost when it’s reduced to Shinobu whose every scene gets cut off by Suzu running away in embarrassment. So, if the romance is cut off, what does that leave the movie with?

There is a version of this movie somewhere, where either Shinobu was The Beast or Kei, was slightly aged up and was connected to Suzu’s life. Where the revelation of The Beast’s origin was revealed much earlier and the movie would have time to bond Belle and The Beast through their trauma and use of social media to escape. Truthfully they wouldn’t need to be linked romantically, just having that close bond that we the audience can believe and root for would’ve been enough. Throughout this movie, I cannot tell you why Belle is captivated by The Beast, their chemistry was non-existent. Having them linked through that bond, that shared trauma and opening themselves up and becoming whole again in the process would’ve made me care so much more. It would’ve fit perfectly with Suzu’s emotional arc and the theme of processing trauma and working through it. It literally writes itself.

What makes the actual ending even more unsatisfying is that after learning that Kei and his brother have an abusive father, Suzu travels alone (emphasis on a 17-year old girl searching for a physically abusive man alone!) to find the boys and help them. The thing is, she doesn’t help them at all! She looks the father in the eye and somehow that’s enough, they don’t go back to her town to live with her, we never get any true closure for these two brothers. I cannot emphasize how harmful that depiction of stepping up to their abusive father is. It was reckless and irresponsible, especially when they show the abuse but they don’t show what happened to the children after? Did they go back to living with him, did the police intervene? There’s an entire scene where Kei lashes out and yells about how all his life he’s been begging for help and he has yet to receive it and ironically, the movie doesn’t give it to him either.

All of this being said, despite the overbearing lack of focus in the plot, the world of ‘Belle‘ has a lot to like, namely the animation and music. Without a doubt, the heart and soul of this movie is the music. Every time Belle sings, it feels like an event, a celebration of life even. With both Kaho Nakamura and Kylie McNeill, the Japanese and English voices for Suzu/Belle singing their hearts out in tandem with the beautiful animation as well as the beautifully cinematic instrumentation, the music of ‘Belle’ truly soars as it’s best defining quality. Everything from the heartfelt vocals and voice-acting to the captivating melodies and visually arresting animation makes for some truly spectacular musical numbers, namely the climactic ‘A Million Miles Away’. Part of the magic of these performances is the shot composition which is so noticeable in this movie. The use of scope and perspective is almost used in a Denis Villenueve type of way and it’s greatly effective. However it’s only used in the digital world, in the real world, the movie uses that signature Mamoru Hosoda animation, it’s very endearing and it makes the characters feel far more alive than the script ever allows them to. The scene where Kamishin jokingly asks if Ruka has a crush on him only to find out that she does was perfect! Such a long scene which got funnier the longer it went on, the absurdly long pauses and the hilarious expressions made this scene comedy gold.

Overall, after the smaller scale of his last movie, ‘Mirai‘, Mamoru Hosoda amps up the scope but looses that intimate writing in return with ‘Belle‘. This is a movie which doesn’t know what it is as it never sticks to a singular plot line and fully executes it. While the music soars and the animation is truly captivating, it cannot make up for the bizarre plot and lack of emotional depth or direction. There is a fantastic movie hidden somewhere here but it rarely ever shows itself. I really wanted to fall in love with this film but unfortunately I only fell in love with parts of it. I would watch it again purely for the music and visuals but the wasted potential will forever taint the experience for me.

Belle‘ releases digitally May 3rd and on Blu-ray/DVD on May 17th.

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