Beauty and the Beast is a classic French tale from 1756 and was so beloved that Disney created an animated film that has become iconic. Due to its popularity, several remakes and re-tellings were created to recapture the essence and feel of the original, with little to no success. Most offered no fresh ideas or were completely unappealing. However, from Studio Chizu from Japan, comes a very unique rendition of the classic tale by Academy Award nominated director Mamoru Hosoda.
After the death of her mother, Suzu Naito (voiced by Kylie McNeil) grows up into a shy and reclusive high school girl. To deal with both her low self-esteem and her mother’s death, Suzu downloads an app called “U”, a digital world where the user can create a virtual avatar called an “A.S.” She creates an “A.S.” with the alias “Bell” and begins to sing on “U”. The next day, Bell goes viral and becomes an internet sensation. Due to her voice and appearance, netizens of “U” begin to dub her “Belle” which means “beautiful” in French. However, during one of Belle’s concerts, a mysterious and dangerous “A.S.” dubbed “The Beast” disrupts the performance, but a pseudo-police force led by Justin (voiced by Chace Crawford) chase him away. Belle is drawn to The Beast and tries to unveil his identity, all while trying to avoid Justin’s clutches.
I have to say, this film is unlike any other animated film I’ve seen, in not just its visuals, but also its storytelling. The art style is completely unique, being both abstract and detailed at the same time. For example, the backgrounds appear to be water colored, but have the detail of an ink pen or color pencil. Additionally, the virtual world of “U” is portrayed with copious amounts of digital art and CGI. In a way, the world of “U” is reminiscent to the world of The Emoji Movie, but done in a much more aesthetically pleasing and original manner. Belle strikes a perfect balance of both a Makoto Shinkai film and a Hayao Miyazaki film, combining Miyazaki’s more traditional art style and Shinkai’s close attention to realism.
To complement its gorgeous aesthetics, the film’s music is spectacular! When I first listened to the opening song, I was immediately hypnotized by its beauty. Other songs like Gales of Song are not only mesmerizing, but made me feel as if time and everything around me ceased to exist. Nothing else mattered in the moment, except Belle’s voice. Not only is Kylie McNeill’s voice in the English dub absolutely mesmerizing, but also deeply emotional. She perfectly conveys Suzu’s deepest feelings through the soulful voice of Belle, yet also portrays Suzu’s voice in the real world as squeaky and meek. This is her very first film, and I have to say, she absolutely killed it! I hope she goes on to have a long and successful career!
Speaking of Suzu, I found her to be a very complex character with understandable feelings toward her mother. After she died saving another kid, Suzu felt that she didn’t care for her, due to prioritizing another kid’s safety over her own wellbeing. Due to this resentment, Suzu even stopped talking to her father, and the two haven’t communicated properly at all for many years. While the dead mother and fridged woman trope still exists to this day, I think the death of Suzu’s mother works in the context of the film, unlike the Disney remake, where it was only used to bring Belle and the Beast closer over the fact that they both had dead mothers. Suzu always had a closer connection to her mother and even learned the beauty of music through her. When she died, Suzu couldn’t bring herself to sing, so she creates Belle to sing online. The entire film’s plot revolves around Suzu coming to terms with her mother’s death and why she sacrificed her life for a stranger’s.
Unlike the classic tale, Belle isn’t a helpless character. She fights her own demons throughout the film and even helps The Beast go through his own demons. Initially, I thought that the film would end up unintentionally using the “sweet girl falls in love with and tames the bad boy” trope, but Belle doesn’t do that either. Both Belle and The Beast are opposite sides of the same coin; they both put on a cold exterior in their respective lives, but deep down, care deeply about those around them. The love they have for each other isn’t the typical Hollywood puppy love, it goes far deeper. It doesn’t need to be shown with words or kisses, rather, through the lengths that they go for each other. That’s what the essence of true love is.
Additionally, the film did a wonderful job subverting my expectations for the for the other major characters, who at first were archetypical high schoolers. For example, Ruka Watanabe (voiced by Hunter Schafer) is the popular girl that everyone wants to be, Shinobu Hisatake (voiced by Manny Jacinto) is the silent bad boy, Kamishin Chikami (voiced by Brandon Engman) is the dork, and Suzu’s best friend Hiroka Betsuyaku (voiced by Jessica DiCicco) is the nerd. However, as the film progresses, so do the characters. For example, after learning about the false rumors that Suzu was supposedly dating Shinobu, Ruka comforts Suzu rather than demean her like many other girls did, showing that she actually cares about Suzu. A lot of films have predictable plots and characters, even good ones like Inside Out. However, Belle had me both guessing and fooled. From the characters, to the story, my predictions were constantly proven wrong. And you know what? I’m glad I was wrong! Why should I sit through 2-3 hours of a film when I know what’s going to happen?
Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle is a thoroughly creative and absolutely gorgeous modern day re-telling of the classic fairytale Beauty and The Beast, and in my opinion, it even surpasses Disney’s original! It does what a re-telling should do: a completely original take on an existing story and characters. In a film industry where remakes and re-tellings of classic stories are only made with the goal of box office success in mind, Belle redefines what it truly means to be a re-telling and sets a new standard for all future films to follow.