If you ever wanted to be a pop star riding a flying whale covered in stereo speakers, “U” is for you. In the dazzling animated film “Belle” from director Mamoru Hosoda (the Oscar-nominated “Mirai”), “U” is a “Matrix”-like virtual reality world where ordinary people become extraordinary creatures.
This is neither a utopian nor dystopian vision of online life, as “Belle” shows both the pleasures and perils of shedding one’s identity and disappearing into a digital avatar. And, as always in his films, Hosoda creates a fantastical world not for its own sake, but to use it to delve into the very real-world emotions of his characters.
“Belle” is now playing only in theaters at Marcus Point, Marcus Palace and Flix Brewhouse Madison. I reviewed the subtitled Japanese version, but an English dubbed version is also screening.
Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a shy teenager who has felt isolated from the world since her mother died years earlier. A montage of Suzu’s memories of her mother, who sacrificed herself to save another child, has the poignancy of the opening montage from Pixar’s “Up.” She signs up for “U,” an online world that promises to read the user’s biometric data and create a digital avatar from their essence.
For Suzu, that means becoming Bell, a pink-haired, freckled pop singer who commands legions of fans (they’re the ones who add the second “e” to her name). But Suzu finds that fame, even virtual fame, come with a price — there are an equal number of “U” users who can’t stand her. Hosoda visualizes the noise of the internet by crowding the screen with comic-strip speaking bubbles, or depicting the flame wars between the pro-Belle and anti-Belle forces as a tabletop wargame, with pieces moving around hexagonal squares on a board.
Even more famous than Belle is Dragon (Takeru Satoh), a fearsome, rage-driven monster who has been terrorizing “U,” and is being hunted by Justin (Toshiyuki Morikawa), who is sort of the self-appointed police chief of the world.
Fascinated by Dragon, and concerned that his anger may be driven by some hidden pain, Belle tracks the monster to a ruined castle on the outskirts of “U.” And that’s when I slapped my forehead and realized I’d actually been watching an adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast” this whole time! While the world of “U” is presented as an eye-popping cityscape of swirling color and lights, the scenes between Dragon and Belle have a quiet, elegant classicism that is clearly Hosoda’s homage to the Disney version.
But this “Beauty and the Beast” isn’t a love story, but one of friendship, and of teenagers learning how to heal their own pain and that of others. “Belle” doesn’t take a critical view of online life, and “U” certainly looks like a lot of fun to a kid. But Hosoda gently suggests it’s best used as a tool of self-discovery, to develop your own identity, and connections with others, in the real world.