While the internet IRL is drenched in morbidity and toxicity, Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda imagines a brighter semi-utopia in “Belle.” Five billion users have signed up to a virtual society called “U,” a vast chasm of lights and screens, and is populated by algorithmically generated avatars that supposedly bring out the person’s inner strengths. For Suzu, a shy high school student, she enters U as an ethereal pink-haired songstress called Belle, whose angelic voice and inspiring songs quickly go viral.
In his director’s note, Hosoda describes “Belle” as the film he has “always dreamed of making,” which raises the question: why now? Perhaps he needed the experience and years since his first feature with animation studio Madhouse, “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time,” to tell this story right. The closest “Belle” relative, 2009’s “Summer Wars,” came when Facebook was just beginning to overtake MySpace as the most popular social network. The internet as we know it was still in its relative infancy, and you couldn’t anticipate the messy behemoth that social media is now. With “Belle,” Hosoda returns to the fertile ground that “Summer Wars” first cultivated, and with the decade gap comes the added knowledge of what connectivity is actually like. The director deploys creative imagery to portray the intangible frustrations of existing online: mob mentality trolling appears as a barrage of disorganized notifications clogging up the screen; virality is illustrated as an overwhelming, incalculable mass of bodies. The visual chaos on-screen reflects the information overload we’re all keenly familiar with.
As proven by the matriarchal fable “Wolf Children” and the toddler-sized trip “Mirai,” the director is adept at extracting universal ideas from the fantastical. “Belle” continues that trend, flitting between both sides of Suzu’s double life as she handles her secret side-hustle along with her adolescent anxieties. As the resident outcast, Suzu quietly envies the popular girl in school and wallows over the childhood friend she harbors feelings for. Despite the heightened theatrics of the virtual world, “Belle” takes its low-stakes, offline counterpart just as seriously, such as in a hilarious interlude revolving around mutual crushes being unable to get a word out to each other. At the same time, the film dabbles in more mature themes like grief and even child abuse.
The film strikes a careful balance between the high school drama and the online realm but also explores how those two environments bleed into each other. U is a whole other world but also informs the everyday interactions within the real one. It’s also impressively dedicated to rendering social media interfaces authentically, even down to the accurate iPhone emojis. That isn’t to say that Hosoda has toned it down at all. “Belle” is his most visually ambitious to date, possessing the world wide web maximalism of “Summer Wars” and the vibrant mayhem of Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika.” In an entrance so gnarly it could rival the “Mad Max: Fury Road” Doof Warrior guitar-shredding, Belle’ stage is an enormous blue whale decked out with hi-fi speakers. Sequences within U also seem to move at a higher frame rate so as to add to the world’s uncanny feeling.
At the height of her fame, Belle encounters a reticent, wolf-like creature whose aggressive presence is seen as a threat to the delicate peace of U. She’s determined to understand the source of the collage of paint splodge scars on his back, but he’s reluctant to make any contact. Slowly but surely, though, she wriggles her way into his life – and maybe even falls in love with him. If this is beginning to sound a lot like “Beauty and the Beast,” that is intentional. This development arrives when U and Suzu’s life has already been well-established, perhaps making this an unnecessary addition to the story, but it’s a fascinating modern reinvention that Disney couldn’t conjure. Hosoda reimagines the fairy tale in other ways, too, envisaging the beast not as the symptom of a curse but as a troubling manifestation of inner demons.
If the past few decades spent online have proven anything, it’s that there is no point in being optimistic about the internet anymore, and yet, Hosoda remains undeterred. When Belle’s follower count first explodes, Suzu is debilitated by all the negative feedback she’s amassed. But as her best friend reassures her, for every nasty comment, there are dozens of others encouraging her to keep going. This philosophy – that the good of the anonymous triumphs over the bad – is at the heart of “Belle” and its hopeful and joyful vision. [B+]