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It’s interesting to observe the steady rise in popularity of certain animation directors from Japan. For a good long while, it used to be just Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata taking up all of the attention from overseas audiences. It wasn’t until 2016 that Your Name by Makoto Shinkai received the same attention. It wasn’t until 2017 for Masaaki Yuasa with his combo of Lu Over the Wall and The Night is Short, Walk on Girl. The hope for the future is that with the acclaim of A Silent Voice, Liz and The Blue Bird, and The Heike Story, Naoko Yamada will be next alongside Mari Okada with her film Maquia: When the Promised Flowers Bloom and her work on O Maidens In Your Savage Season. For now, it’s finally Mamoru Hosoda’s time in the spotlight. Sure, he has had it before with his acclaim for films like Summer Wars and Wolf Children, but mainstream audiences are mostly going to know him as the director of the Oscar-nominated Mirai. Even now though, how can you trust more casual movie audiences to actually go out and see a foreign animated feature when there are barely any theaters playing them? Luckily, GKIDS and Hosoda have gone all-in with his newest film, Belle.
Written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda himself, the story follows Suzu, voiced by Kaho Nakamura and dubbed by Kylie McNeill. She’s a distant individual who feels alone in the world due to the depression that surrounds her after the death of her mother at a young age. She currently lives with her dad, but is pretty reclusive to anyone who isn’t her friend Hiroka. She even grew displaced with her hobby of singing and music due to how it was her mother who was supportive of it. One day, she decides to join the massive social media world known as U, an online space that scans a photo of you and turns you into who the “real” you really is. She goes by the name of Belle and ends up picking back up her singing under her new online persona becoming a massive hit. Unintentionally, with all that comes with fame and popularity online, her path is crossed by an entity known as Dragon, voiced by Takeru Satoh and dubbed by Paul Castro Jr. Who is this mysterious individual and what will Belle/Suzu’s fate unfold into if she decides to find out who this Dragon really is?
It’s been said on record that Hosoda was inspired by Disney’s 1991 Oscar-nominated Beauty and The Beast, and the film uses a lot of the themes and elements of the original story. Though honestly? I wouldn’t truly call it a Beauty and the Beast story in the more traditional sense. There are themes about love and family, which is what a lot of Hosoda’s films are based around, but this time, he sort of goes off the beaten path with how much this film is tackling. It deals with themes of loss, love, connection, coming of age, becoming stronger in a metaphorical sense, abuse, identity, and especially social media with how it warps and changes individuals. It might have some similar elements to Summer Wars, but people expecting Summer Wars 2 should really not go in expecting that.
The only thing similar is how the film takes place in a social media world, but it doesn’t feel rehashed or recycled. People forget how long ago Summer Wars was and how social media has absolutely changed from 2009 to 2021. It’s more of a story of Suzu’s growth as an individual, and you can see how that progresses from the start to the finish of the film. Belle is full of small character beats of set-up and pay-off that are frankly, so well executed. Some reviews say there was too much going on, but the story never felt like it had too much on its plate. As previously mentioned, there are small little visual story beats that set up the overall story that you can miss if you aren’t paying attention. The overall story is extremely touching and shows how human connection and love can help each other get through life and grow stronger as individuals.
Animation-wise, Hosoda made sure it was clear that there would be a lot more CGI used alongside his studio’s incredible 2D animation. There seems to be this weird technophobic reaction to anytime someone uses CGI, and that’s a shame, because the CGI here is used well. It might not match what Disney or what US studios are doing, but it has a distinct look that has the same level of high quality CGI used by studios like Studio Orange. It helps that a majority of the CGI is used while in the virtual social media world, and it’s all incredibly stylized. The characters are expressive and the movements never feel awkward or clunky. It also helps that Jim Kim, who designed multiple characters for Disney hits like Frozen and Encanto, designed the look of Belle herself. Even Cartoon Saloon helped out with the backgrounds in U, and it leads to a mixture of some of the best visuals of the 2020s so far. That doesn’t mean everything amazing was pushed into the CGI, because the 2D is also great as usual, with some fantastic designs, expressions, and when the film wants to be funny, comedic animation.
It’s Studio Chizu, so of course, it was going to look great, but the acting is also so good. The original language version and the English dub are quite possibly some of the best in recent memory. You can tell the actors on both versions worked hard to hit the big emotional scenes and are compelling outside of those scenes. Both the Japanese and English actors for Belle had their breakout roles in this film. The rest of the cast includes some really big names on both sides like Takeru Satoh, Jessica DiCicco, Hunter Schafer, Wendee Lee, Barbra Goodson, Ben Leply, Shota Sometani, Paul Castro Jr, Kylie McNeill, Chase Crawford, Manny Jacinto, David Chen, Lilas Ikutah, Ryo Narita, Brandan Engman, Tina Tamishiro, Andrew Kishino, Kenjiro Tsuda, and you get the idea. What’s fun about the English dub is that while there are some recognizable names, they aren’t the biggest celebrities around like some of GKIDS previous endeavors with casting celebrities for their films. It’s a dub filled to the brim with character actors and voice actors, which is the best. However, one thing that could have crippled the film is the quality of the songs that were performed by Kylie and Kaho respectively. Well, they are bangers! There might not be many songs for the lead to perform, but what they lack in quantity of songs, they definitely make up for in the quality of songs. The songs play an important role for each part of the story in which they are introduced, and they will stay with you for the rest of time once you leave the theater. The music is, like the visuals, a collaborative effort by Miho Sakai, Yuta Bandoh, Ludvig Forssell, and Taisei Iwasaki. It offers a vibrant offering of tunes that are just as fun to listen to alongside the musical moments.
Belle is simply put, a powerful experience, with its outstanding visuals, engaging story, and musical moments all wrapped up in one of the best animated films of 2021. It truly deserved its 14-minute standing ovation at Cannes as well as the multiple award nominations and wins under its belt. It’s this reviewer’s personal favorite film of 2021 alongside The Mitchells vs. The Machines. It’s now time for Mamoru Hosoda to have the same level of acclaim and attention that Hayao Miyazaki has enjoyed over the years. If you can watch this film safely, please do check it out. It’s an experience unlike any other in animation. Next time, we will look at the Funimation co-produced and distributed Sing a Bit of Harmony.
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