The first time we encounter our titular heroine, Belle, she’s riding atop a flying whale covered in speakers while singing her heart out, and it’s a real ‘wow’ moment. This incredible sequence is the perfect introduction to Belle and the virtual world of ‘U’, where anything is possible, and you can be anyone or anything. It’s a dazzling, dream-like virtual realm, a sort of cross between VR Chat, Second Life, and a whole bunch of social media apps, and it serves as the ultimate form of escape from the real world.
The real world is where the avatar of Belle, the beautiful, freckled, pink-haired anime fantasy girl, must return to her real-life form of 17-year-old schoolgirl Suzu Naito. Real life and the real world are far harsher and less fantastical for Suzu. She’s short on friends at school, her dad tries his best to raise her on his own, but she remains aloof and flighty, and a childhood tragedy has left her unable to bring herself to sing anymore, once her favourite pastime. Belle‘s virtual world is spectacular and magical, but its real one often feels harsh and intimidating, and it really hits home. Real life is hard, and the appeal of escaping to a virtual world – be that one offered up by video games, VR, or social media – is all too easy to understand, and the freedom it offers is beguiling.
For Suzu, the world of U is the ultimate form of escape and liberation, and she discovers that here, away from her real-world worries, she can finally sing again. Her first tentative song, which builds to a spine-tingling climax, and the sequence around it will leave you breathless. Belle never misses an opportunity to dazzle you, be that with its spectacular virtual visuals or its songs. In any movie with music at its heart, these need to be something special, and Belle delivers a soaring soundtrack that will stir your soul.
Belle becomes an overnight viral success and settles into her role of virtual pop sensation, but her charmed online life is interrupted by the appearance of the Dragon. This monstrous and violent avatar is accused of disturbing U’s peace by its self-appointed vigilante police force. Witnessing a brutal battle between them, the kind-hearted Belle becomes fascinated by the monster and begins to try to track him down, convinced that there’s more to him than meets the eye. When she discovers his tragic secret, she takes it upon herself to help him and, to do that, realises that she has to face everything the real world has thrown at her.
Where its virtual story is thrilling and fantastical, Belle‘s real-world setting grounds the movie and makes it feel that much easier to connect to. There are emotional family moments, laugh-out-loud interactions between Suzu and her schoolmates, and, while U is all about visual spectacle, director Mamoru Hosoda’s real world is all about subtle beauty and attention to detail. Suzu’s oh-so-brief eye shift as she lies to her friend Shinobu; tears slowly gathering in her eyes during an emotional moment on a bus; a cloud growing almost imperceptibly over mountains in the distance. It’s these little touches that make all the difference and make the real world of Belle and its characters feel alive.
Belle delivers the perfect blend of drama, humour and heart. It’s a feast for both the eyes and ears, and it tells a story of love, loss, finding your inner strength and accepting who you are. It will hit you in the feels, it will put a smile on your face, and you’ll love every moment of it.
Belle is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 27 June, with a 4K + BD + CD Deluxe Edition releasing on 7th July
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