It doesn’t take a genius to see that acclaimed director Mamoru Hosada’s Belle takes a ton of inspiration from Beauty and the Beast, specifically the Disney adaptation. All the trappings are there: We have a beauty, a beast, and even a “Gaston” (who, in this version of the tale, is a VR Power Ranger complete with corporate sponsors). Specific scenes from the Disney film are likewise recreated, such as the Beast saving Belle from danger after she flees his castle and the romantic dance between the pair in the ballroom over a love song.
However, that doesn’t mean that this is a modern retelling of the classic fairytale. Rather, Belle uses elements of Beauty and the Beast as a type of narrative shorthand: we all know “the tale as old as time,” thus a few familiar scenes are all we need to understand large swaths of the characters and story without relying on words or any other exposition.
While this is a handy storytelling technique that allows much of the film’s runtime to be spent on the original sections of its plot, it also causes more than a bit of unnecessary confusion, namely in the moral the story is trying to portray. The message of Beauty and the Beast is that beauty is only skin-deep—that a kind and loving heart is far more important than outward appearance. But this is not the moral of Belle.
Belle is a story of loss, abandonment, and how people deal with those emotions over time. Suzu, Belle’s real-world self, is a high school girl struggling to come to terms with the loss of her mother years ago. Time has done little to mend her grief, and the one thing that could possibly help her heal is locked away from her.
From a young age, Suzu was drawn to music; she started composing her own songs ever since she was an elementary schooler. However, in her mind, her musical talent is intrinsically connected to the person who taught her and supported her in that area: her mother. In the current day, if she tries to sing even as little as a bar of music, she gets physically ill—to the point of throwing up if she tries to force her way through it.
However, the world of “U” is an escape from the torment of her everyday life—a place where she can be someone else. And in this place, she can do the one thing that gives her life meaning: she can sing.
While the details are different, the general sentiment is the same when it comes to The Beast. The virtual world is an escape from his own life—a place where he is powerful enough to fight the things that hurt him and can protect what is dear to him.
Suzu and The Beast are drawn together not because of love or fate, but because they are both tortured souls who are able to sense and understand each other’s pain even as they run from it in the virtual world.
If anything, the moral of Belle is that there is someone out there who will understand your pain—and that together, you may be able to heal what you couldn’t alone. It’s a solid message, but it’s also one that doesn’t quite mesh with the traditional message of Beauty and the Beast. I can’t help but feel that a different fairytale with more closely related themes may have been a better choice.
While Belle‘s melding of the old and new can be a bit of a mess at times, the music is 100% on target. This is a story that hinges on Belle being a musical phenomenon and the soundtrack unquestioningly delivers on this premise. All the film’s main songs are absolute bangers, but that’s just the start of what makes them so cool. They are presented as diegetic music in the movie—i.e., they are songs sung by Belle that everyone can hear. But more than that, these songs are composed by Suzu. They give an insight into her mind, whether it is the pain and uncertainty she feels about the loss of her mother, or the joy she finds in the freedom she has obtained in the virtual world. People wonder about Belle’s true identity, but what she shares through her music tells you more about her than her name or true appearance ever could.
The visuals are likewise fantastic. With its skyscrapers emerging from both the ground and the sky and its heavily geometric design, the world of “U” genuinely feels like a world inside a computer. To offset this, there are numerous fantasy elements incorporated into the design, like its perpetual crescent sun with visible sunbeams and the illusions hiding The Beast’s castle from the rest of the world. All this comes together to make something both visually unique and captivatingly alien; in other words, the perfect setting for a futuristic fairy tale.
This sense of otherworldliness is heightened when the 3D animation of the virtual world is set against the 2D animation of the real world. Suzu is drawn as plainly as possible—as is the real world itself. Belle, on the other hand, evokes the feeling of a Disney Princess in her design. Yet, despite the massive differences in character design and art style, you can see Suzu in Belle. In fact, even though most of the casts’ avatars are non-human in the virtual world, they still look like their real-world counterparts in subtle ways. But what’s really clever is that this is actually a plot point in the film and a key to unraveling the mystery of The Beast’s true identity.
All in all, Belle is a feast for the eyes and ears. At the same time, it is a meaningful look into the lingering effects of loss and the seemingly hopeless struggle to overcome it. And while sometimes theBeauty and the Beast elements of the film don’t quite mesh with the story being told, there is no doubt that the “magic” on screen is both real and beautiful.