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"BELLE"
(2021) (voices of Kaho Nakamura, Takeru Satoh) (PG)


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NOTE:
The following review is from the English subtitled version of the film. We do not know if any changes have been made to the English dubbed version that will also be available.
QUICK TAKE:
Animated Drama: A shy girl anonymously finds freedom and massive popularity along with a mysterious figure in a popular virtual world.
PLOT:

Suzu (KAHO NAKAMURA) is a shy teenager who lives in Japan with her father but has never fully overcome the heroic death of her mother years earlier. She has a friend in computer whiz Hiroka (LILAS IKUTA) and secretly longs for Shinobu (RYO NARITA) who befriended her after her mother's passing, but is the polar opposite of Ruka (TINA TAMASHIRO), the most popular girl at their school.

Suzu gets a chance to start anew, at least in the world of U, a virtual community boasting five billion users where everyone exists anonymously with an avatar created from biofeedback. Her name is Bell, soon renamed as Belle, thanks to her beauty and glorious singing voice that garners her millions of followers. But it also creates haters as well as others who want to discover Belle's identity in the real world.

At the same time, a mysterious beastly figure known as Dragon (TAKERU SATOH) appears and draws some of the attention away from Belle, including from the virtual world's authorities known as Justices and their leader, Justin (TOSHIYUKI MORIKAWA). Just as they try to figure out who he is in the real world, Suzu similarly wants to know who this tortured avatar belongs to. And thus, she and Hiroka set out to solve that mystery, a move that puts Suzu's virtual popularity at risk.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10

Call me crazy, but I have a hunch that back when French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot wrote "La Belle et la BÍte" in 1740, never in her wildest dreams did she imagine it would be subsequently adapted into other novels, theatrical productions (including a musical and ballet), TV shows, and movies.

That work, of course, is more commonly known as "Beauty and the Beast" and it serves as the basis for this week's release about virtual reality, "Belle." Barbot certainly never envisioned the coming of VR -- or did she (cue the dramatic duh-duh-duh music) -- but her tale (and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont'S subsequent version) of a prince having to live as an unrecognizable version of himself could have helped inspire the notion of avatars and such several centuries later.

The prince's identity switcheroo was a curse, something that many in today's society might use as a label for such virtual reality and related online social media. That seems to be part of the point of the story where the teenage Japanese protagonist, Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura in the original, subtitled version of the film), discovers the pros and cons of immersing oneself in such a computer-driven world.

She's been depressed, angry, shy and a host of other negative emotions ever since her mother gave her life to save that of another child. Understanding all of that, Suzu's best friend, Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta), encourages her to join U, a virtual community with members numbering in the billions. The girl reluctantly does and recoils from the negative comments aimed at her avatar, Bell (who will soon be rechristened as Belle, the French word for beautiful).

But unlike the real-life wallflower who doesn't dare let anyone hear her belt out a tune, Belle's singing voice and physical beauty end up mesmerizing the online masses, turning her into an instant celebrity.

But she's not the only one who's garnering attention as a cloaked, hulking, and beastly figure known as the Dragon (Takeru Satoh) literally flies into the picture, pursued by the enforcers of U, led by Justin (Toshiyuki Morikawa) who wants to capture the interloper and reveal his true identity.

That's easier said than done, but Belle senses something more to the figure than malevolence, violence, and wanting to be left alone. Accordingly, and pulling double duty in the simultaneous worlds, she and Hiroka set out to uncover the figure's real-world self.

All while the teen must contend with her anonymous superstardom (and others' efforts to unmask her) and her secret crush on the teen, Shinobu (Ry? Narita), who promised to protect her back in her early days of grieving her mother's unexpected death.

The film -- from writer/director Mamoru Hosoda -- is gorgeous to behold in all of its anime glory. Yes, the human characters are fairly two-dimensional and occasionally seem frozen if not moving or speaking, but the backgrounds are lush like watercolor paintings come to life. All of which gives the offering a different but still highly effective visual vibe compared to all of the far more dimensional computer-generated imagery from Pixar and the like.

It's the story, though, that makes the flick shine as it continually morphs and defies expectations about what is and what it's about. The ending -- while a little rushed and a bit far-fetched in terms of what transpires against all odds in a short period -- packs a decent emotional punch. But that shouldn't come as a surprise considering earlier thematic material about loss, families, and such.

Overall, I liked "Belle" quite a bit, and it's yet another good addition to the ever-increasing adaptations of an original work that's now several centuries old. The film rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed January 11, 2022 / Posted January 14, 2022


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