Virtual social platforms are hot right now. Really hot. They're so topical, you can even find online comic series discussing the morals and ethics of VR and AR. With this much attention on virtual reality and identity, it was inevitable for a romance-based anime to debut about the subject with considerable social media marketing.
Belle is a new film by Studio Chizu and Mamoru Hosoda (of Wolf Children and Mirai fame) that tells the story of an ordinary student navigating her way through a virtual landscape, and the fame she receives due to her beauty and musical talent. As the title implies, it's a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast.
In order to rate the movie and keep reader interest, this article will remain spoiler-free. Film discussion will be handled through answering questions instead. Here's the trailer for Belle if you haven't seen it yet.
How is VR handled in Belle?
Users connect in Belle to a world called "U" through their mobile phones. That's right--everyone who loves PC-based VR, go home. This movie predicts full-body motion capture, haptics, and even heart rate readings will eventually be handled by one app. The world of "U" is also backed by extensive social media interaction and the usual ripple effects that come with it. It was amusing to see this and compare it to how Discord and Twitter are so closely used in virtual gaming communities already.
How is the depiction of virtual worlds handled in Belle?
There were some pretty insightful moments about avatars and how they can affect the way others perceive players. Surprisingly, there was even commentary on why a user might pick a short avatar in VR, which felt like the writers might have played VRChat or Cluster at least a few times.
"U" is shown as a world where you can do almost anything, but where fashion and presentation are important. Its vastness in range of offered activities felt very internet-like, but still different than what viewers have seen in Ready Player One. Belle makes it clear that it doesn't want to be another RPO; "U" is its own space and contains its own style of architecture.
Speaking of story, that style looks a bit Disney-ish...
It absolutely borrows imagery and sequences from Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Belle herself even resembles the Belle in Disney's own feature. Viewers will either see the similarities as a tribute, or a commentary on how Disney has stolen imagery from popular anime films in the past to sell to American audiences.
Do the similarities become distracting sometimes as the movie progresses? Yes, and at some point it can become a concern to the viewer. Could Belle be itself without the sourced motif? There were new elements included and cutaways to distinguish its own identity, but a little less borrowing would've been nicer.
Thankfully, the ending is original and heartfelt.
Ultimately, is Belle a good movie?
Yes, it is. Belle does a good job on commenting on virtual worlds while providing a balance in depiction of real-life interactions. Some elements of the story tied up a little too nicely in the end, but they were subplots and not too consequential in doing so. The main ending gave some food for thought and should be satisfying if you decide to watch it.
Should you buy a ticket at a theatre for this film? If you love anime movies, yes. If you are wild about VR and love any good story about it, yes. If you are mildly curious, wait until it's available to stream.
If speculative VR tech with full-body tracking handled by mobile phones annoy you, skip this production entirely.
Belle is now in American theatres nationwide. To find where it's showing near you, click here.