Japanese animation (anime) fans in Arkansas are usually treated to just a few theatrical releases each year. And we have to pay close attention because these Japanese-imported movies only come to theaters for a couple of nights, typically on Mondays or Tuesdays when they don't have to compete with new American releases.
Last year, Arkansas anime fans got to see "Demon Slayer: Mugen Train" and "Josee, the Tiger and the Fish." That is, those that lived in, or were willing to drive to, bigger towns like Fayetteville or Little Rock.
Now comes "Belle," and I have struggled for the last 24 hours trying to sort my thoughts on this film.
"Belle" is based on "Beauty and the Beast," though not the Disney version most millennials grew up with. Rather, it's based more broadly on the 1756 French fairy tale written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Audiences will find no Lumiere or Cogsworth in this anime.
The story is divided between two worlds. In one, a small-town Japanese school girl named Suzu lives a quiet life with a few friends while trying to process the long-lasting grief of losing her mother to floodwaters. In the other world, Suzu is a digital pop star/idol named Belle, who is adored by millions of fans around the globe.
Belle exists entirely in a digital world called "U." It's a virtual reality social network where users put a couple sensors on their ears, and they're transported into U and given an electronic avatar called an "AS."
The tech isn't explained well. Sometimes it's used on the phone, sometimes on a computer, and it's unclear if users have to remain stationary while they're logged into this digital world. Regardless of all that, some of the film's most interesting moments take place in U, and it creates a weird imbalance between the two settings.
The narrative in "Belle" is less of an arc and more of a silly straw. First the film focuses on Suzu's depression over the death of her mother, and I thought that would be the primary crux of the story. But then "Belle" shifts into a more slice-of-life tale, with random happenings at her school with the few friends she has. And finally the movie introduces the beast, who is more of a dragon.
He crashes one of Belle's concerts for reasons that aren't clear and gets into a big fight with the digital equivalent of security guards, beating them all up. From that point on, Belle/Suzu becomes fascinated with the identity of the beast.
The movie retains a few elements from the "Beauty and the Beast" storyline, like "Belle" finding his castle, and dancing with the beast while she wears a special gown, and he wears a suit. But beyond that, don't expect to see many other pieces pulled from Beaumont's tale.
For most of "Belle," Suzu's life is shown at a pretty slow pace, which doesn't match the more high-energy scenes in the digital world. A few scenes are so slow I had to make sure my movie hadn't frozen. It's a head scratcher because the extremely slow scenes felt more like padding than an artistic choice. Except that doesn't add up because the movie is already two hours long.
I will give "Belle" credit for thinking outside the box with its "Beauty and the Beast" themes. It doesn't just throw some different paint on a story Disney already adapted to much fanfare like "Wish Dragon" did with "Aladdin." Instead, "Belle" takes its beauty and beast in an entirely different direction. It's not a story of lovers, but of someone invisible to the world who desperately needs help and the hero who needs to step into the light and save them.
The climax of "Belle" shocked me with how dark and heavy the story transformed itself. And it's ultimately what I think saves an otherwise uneven story.
This film has good ideas, like the importance of finding your voice and making yourself heard. And how harmful empty gestures disguised as good intentions can really be to people who are in pain. I just find its executions of these themes and ideas are a bit muddled at times and even hampered by the stop and go pacing of "Belle."
Director Mamoru Hosoda has some impressive films in his library, like "Summer Wars," "Wolf Children," and even the Academy Award-nominated movie "Mirai." He's a powerhouse director in the anime world, and while "Belle" isn't his strongest entry, it's still worth watching.
The animation is at its best in U, with lots of creative avatars and colorful backgrounds. I was surprised to learn that Cartoon Saloon ("Wolfwalkers") helped with background work. And, of course, Belle herself is such a wonderfully designed digital pop star.
I did find "Belle" to have a few troublesome aspects. Suzu's best friend Hiroka talks about having a crush on her science teacher, who appears to be an elderly man. She goes so far as having his picture as her phone background and taking extra lessons with him. And one of the women Suzu sings with in choir mentions teaching for a while in Ohio and being "interested" in an eighth-grade boy. Those scenes made me cringe. I can't imagine why Hosoda found them necessary to include in "Belle."
Awkward pacing aside, "Belle" brings a centuries-old fairytale into the digital world and gives it a strange new twist. It's colorful and imaginative, even if it stumbles here and there.