Film Review: Studio Chizu’s Belle

Belle Studio Chizu/GKids
Samuel Alexander

Daring to take on the tale as old as time, Studio Chizu’s Belle is ‘Beauty and The Beast’ as you’ve never seen it before, for the most part. Instead of the fantasy setting we’re all used to, Mamoru Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Miral) presents Belle as a modern, sci-fi musical.

Belle starts off strong, introducing us to the digital world of U where people can ‘start over’ and live a virtual life free from their real identities. While we’re introduced to the gorgeous and vibrant world of U, created in part as a collaboration with Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea), we’re treated to our first song. Whether you’re watching in Japanese or English, it’s a catchy bop.

We’re then ripped abruptly out of U and introduced to Suzu (voiced by Khao Nakamura in Japanese, and Kylie McNeill in English), a teenage student that’s simply trying to navigate her quiet life while still mourning the loss of her mother. The scenes that follow are a far cry from the vibrant and busy world Belle opens with. Outside of the world of U, which is created using CGI, modern-day Japan is presented as a hand-drawn animation in Studio Chizu’s signature, beautiful style. The stark contrast in both presentation and tone helps us see just how different Suzu’s life is outside of U.

We spend the opening going through exposition about how Suzu lost her mother and how that trauma has isolated her. We also learn that Suzu, who used to enjoy music with her mother, can no longer bring herself to sing. The exposition may feel a little long, with some minor pacing issues, and possibly even depressing when compared to that opening number. There’s a point to all of this, a point that’s illustrated clearly when we’re brought back to U.

In the world of U Suzu becomes Belle. While Suzu prefers to shy away in reality, she learns through the technology of U and the persona of Belle that she’s able to sing again. As soon as Belle is introduced we’re treated to another musical moment, this time a powerful and hauntingly melancholy melody. As Belle, Suzu becomes an overnight sensation as a virtual pop star, but her real identity remains a secret.

This is all a fun nod to how the anonymity of social media can enable people to let loose and speak their minds. Of course, anyone that uses social media knows that it enables online trolls to spew hatred without ever revealing who they are. While Belle handles this in a rather wholesome way, the secondary protagonist serves as a representation of that dark side of social media.

When we’re introduced to the Beast, he’s presented as needlessly violent and destructive. Much like the original fairy tale, we’re supposed to look beyond his appearance and not judge a book by its cover. Belle goes a step further and wants us to wonder why he’s acting the way he is, and with the nature of the world of U hiding his true identity, who he is.

This mystery is the driving force behind the relationship between ‘Belle’ and ‘the Beast’ in this story, which is sometimes confusingly presented as a romantic tale. Belle is much deeper than a simple animated love story, and it’s a shame that sometimes implied romance muddies the water here. While love does play a role in Belle’s story, it’s not just about romantic love. It’s as much about platonic love, and learning how you can find comfort and strength in the people around you when it seems like all you’ve experienced is loss.

The loss that Suzu experiences early in the film influences the tone throughout. It comes across in every song she sings, the vocals and lyrics both are breathtakingly beautiful, but there’s a sense of something hiding under the surface. All of this culminates in a final act and a final song that packs a huge emotional punch that may just bring you to tears.

Speaking of the musical element of Belle, it has to be said that this is a case of quality over quantity. There’s only a small handful of songs and all sung by our titular virtual heroine. They are all beautifully written however, even localised for the English version there’s nothing lost in translation. You’ll find yourself coming back to both versions of the songs over and over, even if the small song list will leave you wanting more.

As mentioned at the beginning, this is only for the most part ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as you’ve never seen it before. While it is an exciting and fresh take on the story, Belle absolutely wears its’ inspiration on its sleeve, something easily noticeable by any fans of Disney’s own take on the story. This can be attributed to another collaboration: between veteran Disney animator and character designer Jin Kim and Michael Camacho. From the way she looks right down to tiny details in the way she moves, Belle could fit right in alongside any Disney princess. It’s an interesting choice to so clearly reference a Disney classic, but the blend of cultures only makes Belle all the more endearing.

The collaborative nature of Belle helps it stand out among anime film releases. Through the efforts of studios and industry professionals with different backgrounds, Belle becomes a beautiful piece of cinema that captures your imagination and keeps you engaged with its story of love and loss.

While it stumbles with pacing from time to time and confuses its narrative with seemingly out of nowhere romantic elements, Belle has a real charm that’s perhaps been missing from animated films for a while. For fans of the medium, Belle is a visual treat – two beautifully presented worlds that collide to create a spectacle that only animated films can muster. For fans of those classic Disney tales, you’ll be allured by Belle’s strange and uncanny familiarity. For everyone else, Belle is a gripping tale, a mystery that unravels through excitement, heartbreak and acceptance of loss as part of life. Not to mention a beautiful soundtrack that will stick in your head for weeks after you watch (if not longer). Though Belle isn’t a perfect story, it is a story worth experiencing.

About Samuel Alexander

Samuel is freelance writer, occasional illustrator, craft enthusiast and fan of all visual creative media. He is a published author who splits his time between client copy-writing and creative writing.