With its UK cinema release finally happening this week, Belle is a blockbuster anime that you shouldn’t let pass you by – whether you know your Dragon Ball from your Dorohedoro, drip into the odd Studio Ghibli film (which this isn’t but is equally as good as), or harbour hazy memories of watching Ash Ketchum trying to catch ‘em all (which he’s still at, by the by). Even you’re not privy to otaku circles, you might have already caught wind of Belle’s rave reviews from the film festival circuit, including that 14-minute standing ovation it received at Cannes, making it hotly tipped for a shot at this year’s Academy Awards.
If you need further convincing, here are four other reasons to go and see it, marking the fact it’s coming out on Fri 4 Feb.
It’s an homage to Disney’s Beauty And The Beast – but not a ripoff
Belle director – and almost Howl’s Moving Castle architect – Mamoru Hosoda is, like many an animator, in awe of Disney animated classics. In fact, he loves the studio’s Oscar-winning version of Beauty And The Beast so much that several sequences in Belle – which is a broad retelling of the fairytale – are near shot-for-shot remakes of the 1991 film. He even enlisted some character design help from one of its original animators.
This is also not the first time Hosoda has referenced the tale in his work, either: The Boy And The Beast, among other of his films, takes some clear inspiration from it, though Belle is the closest he’s got to a straight adaptation. This isn’t to say that Belle is just an anime-fied Disney movie, or even that deferential to the Beauty And The Beast plot we’re all familiar with. Instead, Hosoda takes the rough structure of the story and particular elements – visual and thematic – and transmutes them into his own parable about the internet, grief, fame and child abuse.
Belle isn’t afraid to tackle taboo social issues
On that last part – yes, child abuse is openly addressed in the film, which might seem offputting to any parents or guardians considering bringing along a child to watch Belle. But it shouldn’t. A parent himself, Hosoda told Insider that he doesn’t think such themes should be “taboo”, even in a medium that’s largely aimed at younger audiences. “As much as it is animation, Belle, I believe, is also a film that needs to come face to face with certain current events that are very much happening.”
While the film doesn’t shy away from said “current events,” nor does it use them for shock value, either. In the same way fairy stories were originally intended to warn children of real dangers using fantastical characters and settings, Belle illuminates the often unseen threats to some of the most vulnerable members of our society, and gives them the means to reach out for help. The lesson here is that we just have to look and listen a little harder.
You’ll want to listen to the soundtrack straight after watching it
While there are no serenading Angela Lansbury teapots or egg-gulping strongmen breaking out into pub singalongs, Belle does have a cracking soundtrack – though it might be a stretch to call it a musical. Based on its eponymous lead’s viral singing sensation, Hosoda made sure to make the pop songs sound both otherworldly – being released in a fairly futuristic time – and catchy.
The film starts off on a musical high note with the bouncy U by music collective Millennium Parade, for which the pink-haired popstar gets the party going on a parade float in the virtual realm of ‘U’, where half of the film takes place. Belle herself is voiced by singer-songwriter Kaho Nakamura in the Japanese dub, who just oozes raw, ethereal talent. The other most recognisable track is Hanabare no Kimi e, the song that first propels Belle to fame in U. It’s not a banger like U is; rather, a wistful ballad that beautifully captures Suzu’s (Belle’s real-world user) teenage melancholy.
Unlike most films, Belle thinks the internet is a good place
Those familiar with Hosoda’s body of work will know of his firm belief in the power of the Internet to do and be good. From Digimon: The Movie to Summer Wars and now Belle, the director’s depiction of virtual worlds is a very far cry from the dystopian nihilism of The Matrix or the corruptive social media of The Circle, to name just a few. U isn’t a utopia but it’s still an inviting, bright and bustling environment rendered in impossibly detailed animation. It’s a place you wish you could go to yourself.
Belle also tackles some of the issues that young girls, in particular, face where beauty standards and social pressures in the Internet age are concerned. But again, Hosoda doesn’t dwell too much on the negative aspects we’re all exhaustingly familiar with: the ultimate message here is that connectivity, a globalised culture and instant access to information has the capacity to bring out the best in humanity. It sounds cheesy on paper, but Hosoda is earnest in his optimism. Two decades after he first began showing us how the internet can save the world, rather than destroy it, it’s impressive, maybe even inspiring, that this belief has never wavered.
words HANNAH COLLINS
Belle is in cinemas from Fri 4 Feb
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