It’s decades in the future and anything is possible. Social media is no longer a burdensome pastime and people can escape their unfulfilling realities through advanced technology. Studio Chizu’s 2021 “Belle” is the modern retelling of the classic “Beauty and the Beast” as well as HBO’s latest animated addition to their streaming service. The film centers on Suzu (Kaho Nakamura/Kylie McNeill), an introverted high school student battling depression and unable to make peace with her mother’s untimely death years ago.
Once guided into a love of music by her mother, Suzu is now paralyzed as she grows up without her and lives in both silence and bitterness. She begins each day eating breakfast on the steps of her home, sheepishly acknowledging her father’s presence. At school she listens to her best friend, Hiro (Lilas Ikutaharp/Jessica Dicicco), point out how invisible she is and gloat about the beauty of popular student, Ruka (Tina Tamashiro/Hunter Schafer). In spite of Suku being invited out by her classmates to karaoke, she’s held back by the grief of growing up without her mother.
Hiro later pushes Suzu to create a U account. The social media app is a virtual world that connects people’s consciousness to an avatar, bringing them into the digital universe. Suku is skeptical at first but she still makes an avatar and names her Belle. Upon arrival in the digital universe, Belle makes her debut singing the song “Gales of Song”.
Incredibly, Suzu is able to sing inside the world of U and this skill attracts a huge following. By the next day Suzu’s Belle amasses over 23 million followers. Belle’s fame continues to grow in the “U” universe and she’s invited to perform concerts to connect with her followers. In reality, Suzu is able to start enjoying her life more now that she can finally sing again.
The euphoria of her fame in the U universe quickly wears off when one of the performances is crashed by the U’s villain, The Dragon (Takeru Satoh/ Paul Castro Jr.). The Dragon is a huge wolf creature filled with hate and desires to destroy things around him. Belle however is intrigued by him.
A vigilante group inside the universe makes plans to hunt down The Dragon while Suzu chooses to do her own research. She learns The Dragon is popular amongst shy children, with one child named Tomo sticking out the most. As Belle, Suzu makes several attempts to get close to The Dragon and even finds his castle.
Belle sings to The Dragon and they form a deep bond. His castle is unfortunately tracked by the vigilante group and destroyed. Back in the outside world, Suku works tirelessly with Hiro to find out The Dragon’s real identity. They’re able to narrow down their search to a video that was uploaded in Kawasaki, Kanagawa, pointing back to the young boy Tomo and his brother Kei who are being abused by their father. The film ends with Suku and Tomo making amends and Suku able to live a life outside of the U universe.
Studio Chizu is known for films like “Wolf Children,”“The Boy and the Beast” and “Mirai.” Similar to “Wolf Children’s” premise of overcoming adversity and grief, “Belle” prioritizes friendship and prevailing in life regardless of the past. “Belle” added a unique touch with its inclusion of the natural and digital world without it feeling overwhelming.
Often with animated alternate universes, like Netflix’s “Arcane,” the storyline includes a lot of despair and darkness. While Suzu and Tomo do have traumatic experiences, they are able to redeem themselves. Suzu’s grief is understandable throughout the first half of the film, but it only takes up a small part of her character. In “Wolf Children,” Hana also deals with grief with the passing of her husband, leaving her to care for two small children. The simplistic beauty of the natural world cures both Hana and Suzu by teaching them to find joy in the small pleasures around them.
Suzu’s healing was prompted by escaping to a virtual reality, yet she’s able to return to the real world and make peace with both her past and present. “Belle” loosely follows the storyline of the “Beauty and the Beast” classic but removes much of the romance, instead choosing to focus on friendship and healing past traumas. As a result, “Belle” is an ambitious story with a feel-good ending that anyone will connect to.
“Belle” is available to stream on HBO Max.
By Adia Carter