Taking its place as the only animated nominee in the Official Competition category at this year’s London Film Festival, Studio Chizu’s Belle is a spellbinding story that transports viewers into an alternate universe of limitless possibilities. Encapsulating the best that Japanese animation has to offer, and binding it together with magical storytelling and musical genius, director Mamoru Hosoda’s film follows Suzu, a 17-year-old high school student, suffering with immense trauma after losing her mother in a river accident many years earlier. When Suzu is introduced to a new virtual world app known as U, she discovers that her ability to sing (lost since her mother’s demise) has returned to her, and builds instant fame in the simulated world. However, she soon discovers that some characters in U have far less worthy intentions, or are running from something much worse than she could imagine.
Creatively, Belle is nothing short of a masterpiece, with a spectacular design structure and colour palette that uses the best of modern technology to create awe-inspiring cinematic sequences that burst with character, details and imagination. Interestingly, 3D animation is only used in scenes within the alternate universe, with the art and animation departments choosing instead to stick with the traditional manga style when Suzu is in the “real world”. This split visual approach broadens the horizon for the viewer, providing the means to distinctly separate reality and AI. The technique is delivered all the more expertly thanks to the addition of Disney veterans Jin Kim (animator) and Michael Camacho (character designer) to the team.
The musical score is as magical as the visuals, with swelling melodies and exceptionally moving orchestral accompaniments to help sweep the audience off their feet. The songs, too, albeit incredibly poppy, have a Disney-esque feel to them, which in this genre can only ever be seen as a positive.
But it is in the writing that the real success behind Belle lies. Unlike in many fantasy films of its time, the screenwriting here covers a vast range of themes, from grief to love, to bullying, becoming confident in oneself, and even child abuse, all the while ticking the boxes and possessing the usual traits a work of its kind would normally have. The truth is, Belle is not for the faint of heart due to its sinister undertones and climactic ending, but it bears strong similarities to Beauty and the Beast, and all can enjoy the exciting and pacy adventure that sees two souls helping each other in a virtual world. If Disney wanted to release another remake of its classic tale but inject a modern twist, Belle would be the prime adaptation.
The movie received a 14-minute standing ovation at Cannes and, quite frankly, it is clear to see why. It is a joy from start to finish, and Oscar-nominated director Hasoda has created something really special, breaking new ground and setting a precedent for work to come. The team went for gold and they found it in all its glittering glory.
Belle does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2021 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for Belle here: