“Belle” is an ambitious anime fantasy with gorgeous, dreamy, CGI-assisted eye-candy images illustrating a somewhat cumbersome marriage of sci-fi and fairytale fantasy.
It is grounded in a classic Japanese anime setting — a rural, mountainside town and high school. But writer-director Mamoru Hosoda (“Mirai,” “Wolf Children”) folds in a cyberlife “Beauty and the Beast” story set in a “U” that very much resembles the metaverse in Mark Zuckerberg’s “Meta” extension of Facebook, with images, characters and tensions not unlike those from Disney’s “TRON.”
“Belle” is too long, thanks not only to the melodrama piled onto the story, but also owing to the extensive exposition and explanations of the digital universe of “U,” which is where this “Belle” avatar becomes a singing sensation, and meets her “Beast.”
In “real life,” she’s just a shy, sad, motherless schoolgirl Suzu (voiced by Kylie McNeil in the North American version of the film). Suzu lives with her widowed father, and we see in a flashback the trauma of her childhood — watching her mother lose her life attempting the rescue a child from a raging river.
She seems to have just one friend, the snarky Hiro (Jessica DeCicco) and pretty much zero presence in their uniformed high school.
“You’re like the side of the moon that gets ignored,” Hiro offers, helpfully.
Suzu crushes on the tall, athletic Shinobu (Manny Jacinto) and envies pretty, popular sax-player Ruka (Hunter Schafer).
But if her classmates only knew…
With a lot of help from the digital tech of the U, which interprets her “energy” into her AS (avatar), and some clever management and hyping from Hiro, Suzu she becomes the pink-haired beauty Belle, a U phenomenon and rising star of J-Pop.
Hiro thinks the online mania to discover “Who IS Belle?” is a hoot, the fact that no one anywhere will guess this “mousy country bumpkin” is the siren of the U, serenading the masses surfing the circuits that make up the Cloud on a whale covered in loudspeakers.
Hiro enabled this transition/alter ego to help Suzu “be more confident.” That’s not really working out.
And then there’s the other anonymous U figure, the Beast — a cowled, horned brawler who fights other avatars and always wins. He’s sought by the “police” of the U, Justice, players/avatars empowered by the Five Voices who run this place. But the Beast won’t be defeated and won’t be exposed, no matter how brutal the U-verse police become.
Belle and the Beast cross paths when he busts up her concert, Kanye-style. Can they, will they find a connection, discover each other’s secrets — perhaps by decoding the code-embedded petals of the “Secret Rose” that the Beast protects?
Yes, that reads as clumsy and it plays out in Hosada’s film. He decorates the tale with pixie avatars and AI “helpers,” school crushes and hidden pain. The U gives the Beast literal scars which may mimic the ones he supposedly has on his back, his “real life” abuse injuries.
The best parts of the film aren’t the wailing, hand-holding of a tentative romance of the “real” world, but the drama of the TRON world of avatars and electrical pulses where chiseled, superhero-muscled Justice figures intimidate Belle and threaten her in an effort to get at the Beast.
“The ugly Beast must be unveiled! I ask YOUR origin!”
Hosoda has a little fun with assorted figures — an artist, a “troubled” star baseball player — who “might be” the Beast, according to web rumors. And he restages the famous ballroom dance scene from Disney’s “Beaty and the Beast” as an homage.
It’s all a little hard to follow. But it’s always a wonder to look at, and even children will pick up on the fact that this is a different take on a classic tale, even if they, like the adults watching it with them, may sit on the fence about how well this hybrid story works.
Rating: PG (Thematic Content|Language|Brief Suggestive Material|Violence)
Voice Cast: Kylie McNeil, Manny Jacinto, Jessica DeCicco, Hunter Schafer, Brandon Engman
Credits: Scripted and directed by Mamoru Hosoda. A GKIDS release (Jan. 14).
Running time: 2:03