Belle: Singin’ in the Zone, by Alexander Miller
Mamoru Hosoda is in love with the outcasts, the loners, and the beautifully imperfect introverts who yearn for nothing but love and acceptance. His characters reconcile this massive rift between the fantastical world and the real one because he genuinely believes that everyone, regardless of their imperfections, is beautiful and deserves to be loved. Does that sound saccharine, even a little corny? Well, it is. So is it possible for Hosoda to make a film that appropriately explores said themes without courting some degree of cheese? Abso-fucking-lutely not.
That’s the little vein of discourse that keeps me intimately engaged with his work; his undeniable sincerity, boundless imagination, and ever-growing ambition bumps against the sometimes mawkish tendencies he’s prone to.
It’s that fine line Hosoda’s been walking throughout his body of work. There are wobbles and teeters but he’s kept his balance without ever really falling off. Also, it’s the cost of doing business in his preferred thematic territory. Familial dramas and coming-of-age stories that tend toward mythic fairytale proportions bear the collateral of a little schmaltz. From 2006’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time to his 2018 Mirai, Hosoda has kept his tonal range in check with a trademark penchant for visual bravura. That’s not a buildup to say that Belle is a dip in quality but an overt gesture towards the storybook tradition, as a reimagining of Beauty and the Beast is the main direction of the story. “Main” is the operative word here because this feature has a hard time getting on its feet and finding its direction.
The narrative momentum is clunky from the starting line. We’re introduced to Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) and a clever expositional montage reveals that not only did she lose her mother at an early age but that her love of music was fostered by her now late mother. Suzu’s only confidant, her brainy bestie Hiro, suggests that she join “U,” the latest phenomenon in social media. It is an immersive, avatar-based virtual world where anything is possible and people can truly transform themselves. Also, her relationship with her father is fraught; there’s discord regarding her mother’s passing for “abandoning” her family to save another child from drowning. Don’t forget, there’s also the varied machinations of U. Not unlike “OZ,” the other escapist digital plot-point from Hosoda’s 2011 Summer Wars, it’s a veritable terrain of infinite possibilities with its own rules and regulations. Long story short, Suzu rediscovers her voice and takes on a new persona as Belle, a beautiful singer with style to spare (thanks to her plucky buddy Hiro) and a huge following that’s only disturbed by the presence of a marauding, demon-like avatar seemingly bent on destroying Belle’s varied performances. If that’s not a mouthful, there’s plenty more and its effect on the 120-minute plus runtime is felt.
Belle takes a while to get on its feet, and two of the flaws that come close to sabotaging the film are the scattershot introductions and the feelings of familiarity. It’s not just that the setting of U is reminiscent of Hosoda’s 2011 outing; it’s a downright facsimile. Right down to the inclusion of some cosmic whales, fans will know what I’m talking about. It’s a creative shortcut–after all, anything’s possible in an alternate gamer-verse–but the potential for exploration feels a little removed. Perhaps our director isn’t bothered by retreading popular aspects from his preceding works or maybe it’s just a way to make an oft-revisited storyline fit into his cinematic oeuvre?
It’s evident that the director has an affinity for the material. There’s excitement and energy communicated through the visually dazzling array of scenery and imagery but the emotional resonance doesn’t connect as well as it should. Perhaps it’s fatigue from climbing so many sets of stairs in the first act. Luckily, a couple of them take us somewhere but the story is disproportionate and knocks you around to a point where you realize the flaws jutting out of the movie overtake its virtues.
As a reference point, Belle marks a first for Hosoda; it’s not the signature of authorship we recognize but a director repeating himself. For someone with his visionary chops, it’s befuddling to him to be so derivative of his own work. There’s potential to run wild while in U but the bits that aren’t evocative of Summer Wars are primarily spent on our titular character’s musical numbers with an eye toward critiquing social media culture. It’s not spectacle or satire but more of a warm-up for an unexpected but relatively inspired climax.
As we cruise through the multi-dimensional and fatalistic Belle, it peels back more layers and its propensity for sentiment feels more and more self-conscious. While the emotional crescendos are sometimes overwrought, there are moments of earned sincerity and the nature of the material feels less transactional as we ramp up the dramatic tension. Even though Belle is self-conscious and lachrymose, it squeaks by because it’s powered by a singular cinematic voice. In the end, Hosoda’s better instincts prevail. But it’s a close call.