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Anime Review: Belle – “Enchanting and unforgettable”

Written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars), Belle is a romantic, action, coming-of-age, high school, techno drama. With a message. That sounds like a lot. And it is. But in a good way. Let’s go.

Suzu is a shy, sad and lonely girl who lives in a small Japanese village. Ever since her mother died Suzu has been unable to sing, doesn’t want to do anything but cry, and has closed herself off to old friends, previous crushes and her father.

One day Suzu discovers ‘U’, a virtual community of 5 billion users that is sort of like Second Life and Meta but cool, a sprawling universe full of colourful characters and infinite possibilities where anyone can reinvent themselves and get a fresh start. Scanned and inserted into ‘U’, Suzu becomes Belle: a tall, confident, pink-haired woman who can sing while Suzu still cannot. With the odd combination of her idol look and beautifully broken hearted pop songs, Belle is soon the biggest star in ‘U’.

While the real world is trying to discover Belle’s identity, she is trying to figure out who ‘Dragon’ really is. An angry beast that lives in a castle, Belle has been smitten by Dragon since he interrupted one of our concerts while being pursued by ‘The Justices’, self-appointed and self-righteous ‘U’ police, and Belle and her beast enjoy a courtship of sorts that culminates in a wonderful homage to the Disney Beauty and the Beast ballroom scene.

As enjoyable as this, and trying to figure out who Dragon is in Belle’s real-world (Is it her old flame? The weird canoeing guy?? Her dad???), this isn’t where Belle is going. The film changes into something altogether more urgent, unexpected and important in the final act.

Technically, Belle is flawless. The sound design is perfection and Belle’s songs are so well put-together that you can believe they would capture the hearts of five billion people and catapult her to stardom. Visually the film is immaculate too. Suzu’s small village and friends and family are beautifully Ghibli’d, while ‘U’ is a fantastically imagined and rendered flight of fancy teeming with life and colour. And flying whales.

There is a bit of a pacing issue, going from the first to second act and the sheer volume of ground and genres covered can feel exhausting until you just give yourself over to the ride. But Hosoda knows exactly what he’s doing and where Belle is going, even if you don’t, and discovering that while getting plenty of sweet genre hits along the way is one of the main joys of the film.

The real world gives you all the tween navigating high school, young love and popularity YA drama, and the supporting characters from Suzu’s classmates to her mother’s super supportive singing club are all easy to love. Romance is found both here and, for a spell, in ‘U’ – which, with those pesky pricks ‘The Justices’ pursuing Dragon, provides fight and chase scenes action. The final act you will be blindsided and touched by, and is full of real-life urgency and emergency, great twists and everything paying off delightfully.

Beautiful, unifying and full of magical musical moments, Belle culminates in an incredible, important and jaw-dropping way where a lot of what we thought was important falls away to reveal what the really important things in the film, and life, are, and that everything else is just a distraction.

Absolutely enchanting and unforgettable, Belle is released in the UK on the 4th of February.

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