Belle (aka Belle: The Dragon and the Freckled Princess / Ryû to sobakasu no hime) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Belle is yet another anime that retreats to the virtual world for redefining identity. There is no shortage of anime like this, spanning from the dreary .Hack//SIGN to the more thrilling Summer Wars. These types of films usually go one of two ways; it’s either a supernatural experience of someone being trapped in a game or someone trying to find some sense of connection. Thankfully, since more slice-of-life anime is in trend now, Belle avoids being that trapped-in-a-game type of film and finds the brighter side of the virtual world.
The film follows Suzu, a teenage girl who is traumatized by the death of her mother when she was young. She grows distant from her father and feels like an outcast at school. She has one friend she speaks with, a popular girl she idolizes, and a childhood male friend that she still has feelings for given their bond. Seeking some avenue to redefine herself, she decides to take part in the most popular virtual world. While finding a photo to use for creating her avatar, she accidentally chooses the photo of a popular classmate. She decides to stick with this photo as she likes the look of a freckled goddess dressed in beautiful dresses.
When Suzu enters the program as Belle, she makes her first action the one thing she’s been longing to do: Sing. Her beautiful voice resonates in this world. There are some people who despise her singing but most people seem to be cool with her voice. Her unique singing manages to topple even the platform’s most popular diva. For someone as shy as Belle, this is a dream come true. She can sing her heart out and not worry about being embarrassed in public.
Belle’s identity remains a mystery and there’s another mysterious figure of the servers. A monster known as The Dragon causes terror on the servers, winning too many tournaments and breaking up events. Nobody knows who The Dragon is and a hunt is on to learn his true identity. Suzu finds herself intrigued by this beast and aims to learn more about him. She doesn’t just want to find out his identity but learn more about his rage and how his avatar carries scars that reflect in real life. What she discovers is a distraught home where she struggles to save someone and herself.
Yes, as you may have guessed by the names, this is a virtual retelling of Beauty and the Beast, complete with a replicated scene of Belle and The Dragon dancing in a golden room with lovely costumes. But, much like any pleasing remake, this film puts enough of its own modern touches on it to avoid appearing like just another Beauty and the Beast replicator (of which there’s been a lot over the years). For example, that ballroom scene can become more imaginative in the virtual world, where Belle and The Dragon can ascend into the air and take in the majesty of the area.
Mamoru Hosoda once more directs a gorgeous and charming feature film. The animation is detailed and glorious, where everything from a quiet evening by the river to a giant whale flying through a virtual city is a dazzling treat for the eyes. The drama can be a tad hammy at times with how earnestly this picture wants you to embrace its virtual world intrigue but the atmosphere sells it well enough. It also helps that there’s some relief from the tension with some adorable teen romances and friendships that build throughout the narrative. All of it builds up to an emotional climax that brings on the tears Hosoda always seems to work for in his coming-of-age narratives.
Belle is one of the most beautiful alternatives takes on the Beauty and the Beast story. If you’re going to keep coming back to this tale as old as time, it’s best to find something more to explore. And for trying to throw this classic fairy tale into an online game scenario, it’s more surprising for how much of it works and avoids the predictable pitfalls of this common anime sub-genre.