Review by Sean Boelman
Mamoru Hosoda’s work has gotten a great deal of acclaim over the years, and his newest film, Belle, looked to be no exception after picking up some great buzz on the festival circuit. However, despite some enchanting visuals, the movie doesn’t work all that well due to a derivative story and anticlimactic pacing.
The film follows a shy high school student who begins to open up when her avatar skyrockets to fame in a massive online virtual world. At first, it’s interesting as the viewer becomes immersed in this world, but when it becomes clear that this is just another riff on Beauty and the Beast, it becomes rather boring pretty quickly.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the movie is that it is seemingly building to something for most of that runtime, and once that reveal is made, it’s extremely underwhelming. The film does get points for not going with the most obvious and predictable answer, but the twist also isn’t very much of a twist.
It’s a shame, because there is a legitimately good message to be found here about the dangers of bullying. There have been a few movies to address cyberbullying in the past, but given that it is a relatively recent phenomena, the world still needed a film that fully goes for it. But Hosoda only approaches the issue without saying much about it.
The protagonist of the movie is certainly likable as an approachable underdog, but everyone in the story is frustratingly thin. What the film fails to do is establish a connection to many of these characters in the real world. Even if their larger-than-life online personas are interesting, the high school stuff is generic and bland.
Kaho Nakamura gives a very strong voice performance in her leading role, but no one else in the movie is particularly impressive. Thankfully, much of the film is carried on Nakamura’s shoulders, as her ability to emote is what drives a majority of the story, but that can only go so far when the rest of the cast doesn’t mesh with her.
Visually, the movie is certainly very ambitious, almost to a fault. There is obviously some gorgeous animation, but other parts feel like sensory overload. A majority of the effort of this film seems to have been put into developing the world stylistically, and that is why it is the best part of the movie, even if the energy gets to be a bit much at times.
Belle has some very strong elements in play, but for the most part, it doesn’t live up to the tremendous bar set by its visual creativity. Maybe the most damning thing that can be said about it is that it doesn’t say enough.
Belle hits theaters on January 14.