Set in modern-day Japan, Belle—the latest from anime writer/director Mamoru Hosoda—follows Suzu, a 17-year-old wanna-be singer suffering from a crippling shyness stemming from a childhood tragedy. For this reason, Suzu can’t connect with the other students and can’t tell her oldest friend, Shinobu, how she really feels about him—even though he probably feels the same about her. So Suzu’s friend convinces her to join the “U,” a massive virtual reality populated by five billion avatars. “You can’t start over in reality, but you can start over in U.” Suzu chooses the name Bell (later renamed Belle), takes the image of a freckle-faced pop princess outfitted in a flowing pink dress, and becomes the girl everyone in U talks about. That’s when the Beast shows up—a large, horned dragon covered in bruises—and catches Belle’s empathetic eyes. Sound familiar?
Though Hosoda effortlessly evokes elements of the 18th-century French fairy tale and subsequent cinematic adaptations—even cribbing some of the imagery from the 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast—Belle quickly leaves the Disney version behind to blaze its own trail. It’s a sweet story with plenty of heart, but it’s in the visual depiction of U’s virtual world where Belle really sings. Hosoda layers a cacophony of textures: image, sound, and on-screen text, to depict a space where emotions change fast, allegiances change faster, and corporate sponsorship is as fleeting as it is validating. It’s a knockout. Available now on Blu-ray and DVD from GKIDS.