For my birthday this year, I had planned to go see “Morbius” with my friends. We all assumed it would be awful, but fun. However, its release was postponed, so we went to see “Belle,” a movie directed by Mamoru Hosada, known for also directing “Mirai,” “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time,” and “Wolf Children.”
“Belle” (or “Ryū to Sobakasu no Hime” which translates to “The Dragon and the Freckled Princess”) premiered on July 15, 2021 at the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival, earning a 14-minute standing ovation. It was released in Japanese theaters the very next day. It took six months to reach the shores of the United States, garnering critical acclaim all the while. It finally released on Jan.14, 2022 and now boasts a 95% Freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Along with the critical acclaim, the trailer for “Belle” was exceptional — placing the VR premise at the forefront while making sure to highlight the gorgeous artstyle and pretty songs. I was glad that “Morbius” got postponed because I became more hyped for “Belle.” I thought it would be a far more enjoyable birthday movie, and I was so excited to go see it.
But I left the theater feeling disappointed.
The movie follows Suzu Naito, a seventeen-year-old high school student. Growing up, she was a musical child, composing and singing little songs for her mother. But after the death of her mother, Suzu gave up on singing until she logged onto “U,” a virtual utopia that enhances a user’s natural talents. In “U,” Suzu found herself able to sing again, as she was not herself, but hidden under the visage of her avatar, the beautiful Belle. Soon, she becomes the most popular singer in “U,” singing to crowds of millions during her virtual concerts. One of those concerts is interrupted by the Dragon, a loathed user of “U.” This captures Belle’s attention and she becomes intent on uncovering the identity of the Dragon that the entire world seems to hate.
The scenes in “U” are spliced between scenes of Suzu’s real life, where she is a wallflower in an unfulfilling life. Since her mother’s passing, she has had a strained relationship with her father, she is overshadowed by her beautiful childhood friend, and she has an unrequited crush on another. She is lonely and plain.
The premise that drew me in was that the story was loosely based on “Beauty and the Beast” by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont but set in a virtual utopia. I had a deep childhood fascination with the story and was drawn to every adaptation of it — from Disney’s classic 1991 movie to the melodramatic Vanessa Hudgens-led “Beastly.” But “Belle” failed to deliver, even as a loose adaptation.
It abandons the rich romance of the story. The central romance of the movie is not between the Dragon and Bell, but between Suzu and her milquetoast high school love interest. By abandoning the romance, the movie struggles to convey the story’s central message: that beauty is in the soul. This message is further muddied in one scene near the end of the film, where the beautiful Belle is unmasked to be the plain Suzu. This scene is central in showing how Suzu does not need to hide behind Belle’s beauty to be able to sing, but the impact of the scene is undercut when mere moments later, Suzu converts back to Belle.
The theme of the movie is also hard to discern because “Belle” is so dense with plot. Despite having a two-hour runtime, so many questions are left unanswered and the movie feels incomplete. We don’t see Suzu’s relationships with any of the other characters develop. Not her love interest, not the Dragon, not even her father. She barely grapples with her grief over the loss of her mother. Plotlines are picked up and abandoned recklessly. There was so much wasted potential. The virtual world of “U,” though underutilized and not properly explored, could have told so many great stories. Instead it was merely an unsubtle, cynical critique of the internet. By attempting to address so much, the movie addresses nothing at all.
However, the music was incredible. I watched the movie dubbed, and Belle’s voice actress had a deep, luxurious voice that layered perfectly on the songs. She sounded dreamy with her processed vocals over romantic, synthy instrumental tracks. I’ve had the soundtrack on repeat since I left the theater. “Belle” was also undoubtedly stylistically gorgeous. The animation was vibrant and exploded with energy and color. I loved each and every costume Belle was dressed in. The character designs in the VR world of “U” were imaginative and diverse. “U” was perfectly contrasted with the bland slice-of-life scenes of the real world. It was a visual feast. The movie is worth watching for the animation alone.
There was so much heart and effort put into the film but it failed to deliver. Or maybe it was my expectations that were too high. If you want to go to the theater soon and watch something pretty with nice songs, this is the perfect movie for you. But if you want to watch something that will stick with you, maybe hold off.