I take no pleasure in that headline. I’ve long listed Mamoru Hosoda among my favourite filmmakers of all time. I have seen and loved everything he’s done as a solo director in the past and his 2012 coming of age fantasy Wolf Children is a strong contender for my favourite film ever. Whatever he did next was always going to be my most hotly anticipated release of the year, no matter what. As the notices on his newest release Belle started to come in, my anticipation grew: rave reviews, a fourteen-minute standing ovation at Cannes (the longest of the 2021 festival, it’d have won the Palme d’Or if Cannes judged by an applause-meter) and talk of it being his magnum opus: the summation of his career, bringing together everything he had done before it, rejuvenating the timeless tale of Beauty and the Beast in the online age. However, now that I’ve seen Belle, I don’t think I’ve been so disappointed since Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time.
Those reviews were right about one thing: Belle is in many ways a vertical slice through the last decade and a half of Mamoru Hosoda’s catalogue, combining the awkward teen romance of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the rich, 3D visual realisation of an online world displayed in Summer Wars, the growing pains and family drama of Wolf Children, and the epic bestial fantasy of The Boy and the Beast. Considering the human-werewolf romance of Wolf Children, an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast seems like a natural evolution for Hosoda and in today’s ever more online, surface level world of social media, you can see how there might be something in that, which a succinct allegory might transform into a profound and poignant experience. However, Belle is anything but succinct, presenting a sprawling, unfocused mess of a narrative that shifts gears like a learner driver and not the seasoned pro Hosoda is.
As I go into as brief of a summary of the film and it’s many subplots as I can, the faults of the film may already start to become apparent. The opening introduces us to it’s online world “U”, a virtual community where people interact anonymously through their avatars, which are auto-generated by “U” itself, based on the user’s appearance and their innermost self (acquired by a quick brain-scan). It also introduces us to “Belle”, a virtual pop megastar whose performances quickly went viral for their strange, tragic beauty and sincerity. In reality, “Belle” is a cripplingly shy teenager named Suzu, who lives alone with her father in a remote rural village following the sudden, traumatic death of her mother, and who became an online sensation—via her avatar—when she and her bossy friend shared one of her songs.
We’re also soon introduced to “The Beast”, a mysterious individual who has gained notoriety for becoming unstoppable in martial arts forums, knocking seven bells out of every avatar that challenges him, including the admins trying to unmask him. Remember that episode of South Park with the one player on Warcraft who’s gotten to such a high level no one can beat him? Suzu becomes intrigued by “The Beast” and tries to make contact with him, intuiting that he is in a great deal of pain. Meanwhile, she’s struggling to connect with her emotionally distant father, process the pain of her mother’s death, regain her confidence to sing as herself with the local choir, prove she can take care of herself so that the boy she’s crushing on will see her as a potential mate and not just someone who needs his protection, and matchmake the popular girl with the goofball outsider, all while protecting her secret identity as a virtual superstar and protect The Beast from the online admins trying to identify him while she and her friend try to find out who he is as well, and hoo-boy, is that enough plot for one movie yet?
Hosoda’s films have occasionally felt a little messy in the past—The Boy and the Beast especially—but this is a whole other level of all over the place. When it’s all said and done the Beauty and the Beast plotline feels like a tacked on afterthought. It’s far too small to contain everything the movie wants to, and what remains identifiable has all the narrative and structural integrity of a flowerpot that sprouted a redwood. There is a fair amount of potential in a social media rewrite of the classic fairy-tale, but with Hosoda’s intensely literal realisation of the internet as a three dimensional space characters move around in, it quickly becomes lost in its own incomprehensibly dense world building. Again, that seemed to happen in Summer Wars too, it often became unclear what was actually happening in the real world that we were seeing incarnated in the online avatars onscreen, but there the story and themes were at least concise enough to keep track of it all. The film seems so focused on creating its hectic visual world that the meaning of all these images is abstracted down to its simplest and shallowest form.
There aren’t any outright bad ideas in Belle—some could even have seemed downright inspired—but they have so little room to breathe, crammed in as they are nose-to-nose with a half a dozen other concepts, that they never have the chance to really connect the way Hosoda’s stories have in the past. The delivery is just off. Clearly these ideas are all the product of a heap of sincerity, they have so much emotion poured into them. They’re extremely charged, touching on grief, trauma, identity, child abuse, and much, much else, and the team behind the film had the resources and know how to make a moment look and sound impactful: I still got chills in the climax, despite the fact I’d long felt disconnected from the story by that point. But the extreme disconnect between the events in the real and online worlds—which never feel organically meshed—the inconsistent visual style, the leaden attempts at comedy, the overly blunt writing that often reads more like reference dialogue that they’re going to come back and redo later, and the sprawling, disjointed story with too many overdeveloped subplots, all combine to make a film that’s significantly less than the sum of its parts.
The best parts do come in the form of the real-world segments of the film. Hosoda’s always excelled at using subtle fantasy elements to allegorically heighten an intimately recognisable real-world situation—like the masterful sequence in Wolf Children when the frantic mother puzzles over whether to take her sick werewolf child to the hospital or the vet (what parent can’t relate to that kind of panic?)—and here there are moments when Belle starts to work on a comparable level. The scant few scenes addressing Suzu’s relationship with her father might be enough to reduce you to tears, regardless of how under-explored this dimension is. The climactic scenario, in which events take a sudden, dark turn, feels oddly neutered, not to mention riven by convenience, but is still grounded in an urgent and stomach-twisting reality. This movie wants to wring tears out of you and it may succeed through pure attrition, but certainly not through elegance.
I’m aware that I seem to be in the minority with this one, and there’s definitely enough admirable qualities to say that if you’re at all curious, to still give this one a go; it might strike a chord with you the way it has so many others. I do hope this is all a consequence of expectation on my part and that as the dust settles I’ll be happier with it. However, as a long term fan of Hosoda’s work, I have the right to, with little hesitation and some sadness, tarnish this film’s reputation by labeling it his weakest solo feature to date. It felt like a ramshackle, committee-assembled assortment of raw concepts and ideas he’s already explored better in previous films. I only hope the best ideas here also get revisited in the future, as some of them do deserve a more effective vehicle, one that has a coherent identity and actually does seem as if it knows which direction to head in from one minute to the next.