Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"This is a triumph of design." | Photo: Studio Chizu

It's Beauty And The Beast at root, but as with any retelling there's depth and nuance to what it considers beautiful, what it considers beastly. Belle is not just a tour de force of animation but a loving homage to film-making, dripping with reference that rewards not just fans of animation but of movies in general. It starts with an expanding horizon, aptly, and will hopefully provide the same for its audience.

With two distinct animation styles for the 'real' and the 'meta', the high school days of Suzu and the digitally enhanced realm of her alter-ego Belle intertwine. In the real the backgrounds are painted, beautifully so, one location straight from Tokyo Story. Over them characters whose simplicity draws from animation traditions, outlines gaining features with each step towards the camera, anger replacing mouths with improbable outlines and flushed cheeks that Snoopy would recognise.

In 'U', accessed through a combination of mobile telephony and telepresence earbuds indistinguishable from magic, character detail abounds. 'U' is, the adverts tell us, a place to be a real version of yourself. Not the projections of Ready Player One, nor the second unlife of Facebook's Meta-verse, derived from patterns of thought and more. A real 'you', in 'U', but not the same you. Eyes look different, faces too. One subtitle of the film is The Dragon And The Freckled Princess and even the way the freckles are presented is distinct but linked between the two.

RyĆ» To Sobakasu No Hime is the Japanese title, that's the 'Dragon...' but Belle works. Not just that it's a translation of one important name, a reference to a hidden singer, but also that another animated Beauty & The Beast kept that name for its protagonist. One clearly known to Mamoru Hosada and his team, as there's a ballroom dance between this pair that replicates the camera movement that was state of the digital art for 1991.

30 years of further advancement of animation have born glorious fruit. This is a triumph of design, the online spaces of 'U' are filled with a fantastic array of creatures, a treat on the big screen to look for nods to all sorts of things culminating in the stately flight of some Moby Doofwagon. There's no friendly teapot, but materteral support (and backing vocal) is provided by a literal chorus.

The version Eye For Film saw was subbed, though with the subtitles of the English Language version. The end credits featured both voice casts. There's at least one other version of the subtitles out there, the distinguishing feature appears to be the way that an OK/Cancel dialogue box visible on screen is described aloud. It's not uncommon for there to be multiple versions of films, but it is unusual that Belle was shown in cinemas both subbed and dubbed. Not simultaneously, admittedly, at least at Cineworld they alternated days. Though the IMAX subtitles were apparently different, and I know of at least one streaming source that may have had a fourth version...

If you listen for it you can hear the change from 'surname san' to 'forename chan' and draw conclusions from that upgrade in familiarity. A small detail in a film that abounds with them, most of them visual. This keen eye not only includes the ways that pupils behave between 'U' and at High School, but to depictions of interfaces, online culture, digital spaces. In addition to delightful pictures, musical contributions from Yvideogame composer and Hideo Kojima collaborator Ludvig Forssell, as well as anime series (and film) composers Taisei Iwasaki and Yuta Bandoh add to it all. Belle is a singing sensation within 'U' and the songs she is given are enough to captivate.

There are some hairy moments, it's rated a 12A because it handles some pretty stark themes. "moderate violence, domestic abuse" is the warning, and that's beyond its exploration of grief. That it's possible to fly in 'U' doesn't make it any less weighty, indeed its sore spots give it space to soar.

It is a simple enough tale, but one so expertly told that it immediately grabs and does not relent. Mamoru Hosada's talents are plenty, and with his collaborators he has produced something truly beautiful.

Reviewed on: 20 Feb 2022
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Belle packshot
The story of a shy teenager who becomes an online sensation as a princess of pop.

Director: Mamoru Hosoda

Writer: Mamoru Hosoda

Year: 2021

Runtime: 121 minutes

Country: Japan

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