BELLE (Ryu to Sobakasu no Hime)

Producers: Yuichiro Saito, Genki Kawamura, Nozamu Takahashi and Toshimi Tanjo   Director: Mamoru Hosoda   Screenplay: Mamoru Hosoda    Cast: Kaho Nakamura, Takeru Satoh, Koji Yakusho, Lilas Ikuta, Ryo Narita, Shota Sometani, Tina Tamashiro, Toshiyuki Morikawa, Fuyumi Sakamoto, Kejiro Tsuda and Mami Koyama   Distributor: GKids

Grade: B

Mamoru Hosoda offers a version of “Beauty and the Beast” re-imagined for the virtual reality generation in “Belle,” an ambitious animated movie that, given a subplot about child abuse, isn’t appropriate for small kids but should appeal to older children and adults interested in expertly rendered anime.

The film falls into two sections.  One is set in the “real world,” in which Suzu Naito (voiced by Kaho Nakamura in the Japanese version and Kylie McNeill in the dubbed English one) is a shy schoolgirl still grief-stricken over the loss of her mother, who died saving a child from drowning.  She also has a strained relationship with her father (Kōji Yakusho; Ben Lepley), who has trouble communicating with her.

Fortunately though generally ostracized she is not totally without friends.  One is handsome but stiff Shinobu (Ryō Narita; Manny Jacinto), on whom she has a crush although he only considers himself her protector.  Two others are popular girl Ruka (Tina Tamashiro; Hunter Schafer) and arrogant jock Shinjiro (Shōta Sometani; Brandon Engman).  Most important, there’s extrovert computer wiz Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta; Jessica DiCicco), who urges her to try an alternative reality app that will take her to the hugely popular world called U, where her avatar drop her real-world inhibitions and reveal her inner spirit and hidden talent.

Suzu’s life in U represents the second section of the film, and though her real-world experience is depicted in fairly typical—if nicely rendered—anime style, U is a blazingly colorful,  richly fanciful and totally eye-popping environment, where she takes the form of a pink-haired princess with an astounding singing voice that earns her thousands of admirers (and some detractors—an inevitability, as Hiroka points out)—on the outside, including Kei (Takeru Satoh; Paul Castro Jr.) and his younger brother, though their father (Ken Ishiguro; Kiff VandenHeuvel) disapproves of their use of the internet.

As Belle’s concerts draw enormous crowds, one is interrupted by the menacing Dragon, a growling avatar given to destruction and disorder.  Seeing him as a threat to U’s happiness and stability, a group of super-heroic vigilantes led by Justin (Toshiyuki Morikawa; Chace Crawford) pursue him, but he proves elusive.  Belle, however, shows her natural empathy by befriending him, even though in an initial visit to his castle he gruffly dismisses her, and back in the real world enlists Hiroka in an attempt to discover the avatar’s identity (an investigation that goes on rather too long, undermining the overall level of tension).  Meanwhile, when Justin realizes Belle’s connection to the Dragon, he threatens to reveal her real self to all U’s users unless she helps him capture the beast.  It will take an act of courage for Belle, at Shinobu’s urging, to make the ultimate sacrifice that can save the Dragon and his human self.

There are a few secondary plot threads in “Belle,” most notably one focusing on the romantic entanglements among Suzu, Shinobu, Ruka and Shinjiro (which, frankly, is none too interesting), but they pale beside the U world, which is so resplendently realized by Hosoda—along with production designers Anri Jojo and Eric Wong—that the word breathtaking is hardly an exaggeration.  And nearly as important as the visuals is the music by Ludvig Forssell and Yuta Bando.  Belle’s songs, beautifully managed by both Nakamura and McNeill, are as integral to her success in U—and in the film—as her gorgeously animated princess persona.

The messages delivered by the film—about finding oneself, overcoming the obstacles in life, coming to terms with loss and dealing with others empathetically even when they might be difficult—are good ones.  But in the film’s final act the one about putting oneself at risk to save others is delivered with a degree of toughness that’s more in line with Japanese animation norms than the more gentle methods of American movies.  As a result “Belle” might not be deemed appropriate for younger children.

For older viewers, however, it will be an entrancing gloss on the “Beauty and the Beast” fable, one deserving of comparison to the Disney version (the animated original, not the misguided live-action remake). 

For the record, the original Japanese title translates as “The Dragon and the Freckled Princess.” You can see why they changed it.