Belle immediately puts us into the world of “U,” an online community that “allows everyone to relax and have fun.” Of course, like all internet-based dealings, there’s nuance and potentially peril. Alongside striking, vibrant visuals and a story that hits close to home, Belle (2022) resonated with me in a big way.
Beyond the scope of U, we’re given the more personal viewpoint of Suzu Naito, who creates the super-popular avatar “Belle.” She lives a dual life: in the real world she’s a quiet girl who lives with her parents, but in U, she’s the most popular draw on the network. Soon she meets the “Dragon,” who, like Suzu, is similarly mysterious, and the conflict begins.
It’s important to note that Studio Chizu, who is coming off of the hit Mirai from 2018, is handling the animation here: and they’re increasingly becoming a studio to watch out for worldwide. Chizu and director Mamoru Hosoda (who also penned the script) pull off crafting not one but two beautiful worlds, with emotive characters that have a distinct style. Having to animate both the “real” sequences and U must have been incredibly taxing (especially with elaborate action in the latter); so, it makes sense that Cartoon Saloon had to come in to help with the ambitious design of U.
Belle (2022) is a beautiful looking film, but it’s also heartbreaking without relying on cheap tricks. You get to live with these characters and feel those moments instead of just being told about them. It’s also incredibly cold when it needs to be. It walks that line constantly, allowing Suzu to thrive as a real character we’re invested in the whole way through.
Plus, we get plenty of biting commentary on the internet at large (and the commentary of that commentary!), on top of familial pain, and the pressure to succeed when compared directly to your peers. We see how Suzu is drawn into the world of U in a convincing way, from start to finish, with fun augmented reality tech. Voice actress Kaho Nakamura is putting in a lot of work in this dual role, and completely knocks it out of the park.
“Belle is a beautiful looking film, but it’s also heartbreaking without relying on cheap tricks.”
If I had one concern, it would be that I wish we had a little more time with Suzu in particular, as a few elements of her life could have used some expanding upon. With roughly two hours of runtime, she gets a complete arc, but there’s a lot left on the table that a few OVAs or a miniseries could tap into. It’s a shame we’ll also likely have to linger on the potential of U itself, too.
Belle is one of the best films I’ve seen in the last several years. It’s not just relevant, but it provides social commentary in a way that’s not grating or cloying: something that’s completely lost on many modern artists. Belle has something to say, and it’s worth listening to. The fact that it’s bolstered by gorgeous animation and a universally relatable conceit is a massive plus.