Belle: The Dragon and the Freckled Princess Review
Mamoru Hosoda continues his winning streak with animated films that are both visually striking and emotionally poignant with his version of Beauty and the Beast in a digital age. Belle creates a virtual world that is easy to get lost inside: a safe space where the worries of the real world can’t leave a mark. It’s in Hosoda’s marrying and tearing down of reality and cyberspace that Belle captures a generation’s safe haven and the ways it allows people to help others in need even when they’re miles away. Heartfelt and wildly imaginative, Belle is another triumph from one of animation’s best directors.
Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura) is shy and still grieving the loss of her mother. She barely speaks to her Dad and doesn’t socialize with many at her high school. When a new virtual app called U begins taking the world by storm, Suzu finds a place where she can finally be herself. Using technology that creates an avatar for the user based on personality and biometric data, Suzu’s new alter-ego, Belle, is born. Her appearance takes the backseat very quickly once Suzu begins singing as Belle, creating a fervor around her not unlike idols and pop stars.
Belle is deceptively simple in the beginning: a girl who can no longer be herself in reality discovers a new world where she can feel free. It’s how Hosoda weaves that into the familiar trappings of Beauty and the Beast that starts unravelling layer upon layer of what it means to bear a painful burden alone. It’s Belle’s eventual encounter with The Dragon – an avatar with tattoos on his back that seems to exist purely to bully other avatars – that sets forth a series of events that puts both of their real-life identities at risk of being discovered.
It’s the duality that Belle contends with at every corner that makes it a timely re-contextualization of a classic story. Taking things to virtual reality where characters can find more joy in their virtual lives than their real lives shines a spotlight on the freedom that anonymity can provide and the barriers it breaks down. It also reinforces the “don’t judge a book by its cover” morale that lays on the surface of Beauty and the Beast. The Dragon’s tattoos are hypothesized by many in U to reflect his physical appearance, drawing up the image of a criminal bringing bad actions to a virtual space – effectively making both reality and virtual reality unsafe for those trying to escape negativity.
What becomes interesting about the witch hunt for The Dragon is that even in cyberspace, U becomes governed by a police force of sorts that the general user base imbues with power to keep themselves safe. Anonymity itself is a double-edged sword, which makes Hosoda’s film especially poignant as it starts blurring the lines between U and the real world. It has some minor pacing issues as it tries to wrestle with the momentum of the narrative and the desire to dig deeper into The Dragon’s identity, but overall Belle is overwhelmingly dazzling. Even when its pacing betrays the breakneck speed of a witch hunt with exponentially growing pitchforks, it’s still a tremendous visual experience.
From the beginning song as we’re introduced to Belle’s lovely voice, to the ending that lets completely loose, Hosoda’s latest film marries the music and high-quality animation his films are known for to create a virtual world so inviting that it’s easy to see why it has become a worldwide phenomenon within the film. Underneath all the decadent and sumptuous art design and animation is a familiar but still emotionally resonant story. With characters that reflect a younger generation unable to break out of their shells, crippled by anxieties and other stresses of adulthood which push them further into virtual refuges, Belle is a vital text on the importance of finding an outlet to be yourself.
Watch Belle: The Dragon and the Freckled Princess