Review: ‘Belle’ (2021), an animated version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ from Japan

February 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Beast/Dragon and Belle in “Belle” (Image courtesy of Studio Chizu)

“Belle” (2021)

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: This Japanese animated fantasy film takes place primarily in unnamed village and in an online virtual world called U, with teenagers as the lead characters and adults as supporting characters.

Culture Clash: A misfit teenage girl creates an online persona called Belle, who becomes the most popular singer in the universe, and she befriends a hunted creature called Dragon under this new persona in this online world.

Culture Audience: “Belle” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in anime films and unique interpretations of Disney classics.

Hiro and Suzu in “Belle” (Image courtesy of Studio Chizu)

“Belle” is more than just another version of “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s a highly imaginative, visually stunning and emotionally stirring film that embodies some of the best anime of the 21st century. Written and directed by Mamoru Hosada, “Belle” captures the essence of “Beauty and the Beast” but also brings many unique elements to the story, so that “Belle” shouldn’t be considered a remake but a true reimagining.

The central character in Belle is a misunderstood student named Suzu, who is about 15 or 16 years old. She lives with her unnamed widower father in a small, unnamed village in Japan. Suzu is somewhat of a loner who has been depressed and grieving over the loss of her mother about five or six years earlier in a tragic accident, when her mother saved a girl from drowning in a river, and Suzu witnessed her mother’s death.

Because of this trauma and grief, Suzu has grown emotionally distant from her father, who tries to connect with Suzu. But she usually acts irritated by him, so they don’t communicate much with each other. Suzu has self-esteem issues too. She doesn’t think she’s as attractive and intelligent as her peers, so she tends to be quiet and emotionally withdrawn from people. She pours her thoughts into her journals, where she writes and sometimes sketches illustrations.

Suzu is haunted by the memory of begging her mother not to go in the river to save the drowning girl. This memory is shown as a flashback multiple times in the movie. Suzu writes in her journal: “Why did mom go in the river and leave me behind? Why was a stranger’s life more important than her life with me?”

At school, Suzu’s only real friend is a sassy computer whiz named Hiro, who sometimes gives pep talks to Suzu to boost her confidence and other times outright insults Suzu when she becomes frustrated by Suzu’s self-pitying ways. Hiro has a blunt way of communicating that might sometimes hurt people’s feelings, but Hiro believes it’s just being brutally honest.

For example, one day at school, Suzu and Hiro admire from afar a pretty and popular student named Ruku, who is described as “the school princess” and president of their student class. When Suzu laments to Hiro that she will never be as pretty and popular as Ruku, Hiro agrees. However, Hiro comes up with an idea that she thinks will help Suzu with her self-esteem issues.

In “Belle,” there’s an online virtual universe called U, where people can create their own personas/avatars, using their real-life DNA. Here’s how U is described in the movie’s opening scene: “U is the ultimate virtual community, created by five sages called the Voices, who preside over the intellect of this world. It’s the biggest Internet society in history that’s still growing with 5 billion registered users.”

The description continues: “U employs body-sharing technology. Your avatar in U is called AS. It is already created, based on your biometric information. You can’t start over in reality, but you can start over in U.”

Hiro suggests that Suzu create a new persona in U. At first, Suzu is reluctant and a little scared to do so. But when she tentatively starts fiddling around with the app to create a U avatar, she accidentally scans a photo of Ruku from a student group photo and can’t reverse this action. And the next thing you know, Suzu has a new U persona: a pink-haired beauty named Belle, whose only facial characteristic that she shares with Suzu are Suzu’s freckles.

One of the things that Suzu is self-conscious about in real life is her singing. But as Belle in U, she immediately becomes not just a hit singer but also the most popular singer in the universe. That’s because, as explained in the movie, the body-sharing technology of U brings out people’s hidden strengths in their U avatars. Belle’s sudden fame gives her millions of fans, but also the inevitable backlash from “haters,” some of whom are other U celebrities who are envious that Belle has surpassed them in popularity.

Seeing this online criticism upsets Suzu. When she complains to Hiro about it, Hiro has this response: “They’re just jealous. If you only get compliments, you only have hardcore fans. Minor league. In U, stardom is built on mixed reception.” Hiro adds, “Be more confident!”

When Suzu worries that people will find out that she’s Belle, Hiro says in response: “Nobody will ever guess that Belle is a mousy country bumpkin like you.” Because Belle has become a rich and famous singer, Suzu feels guilty about getting all this money under a fake persona. And so, Hiro tells Suzu: “Don’t worry. I’ll anonymously donate every dollar to charity.”

There’s a lot more trouble in U than online trolls and bullying. Seven months earlier, a mysterious creature called Beast (also known as Dragon) has been wreaking havoc by physically lashing out at random residents of U. The attacks have gotten so bad, Beast has now become a wanted entity who is sought after by law enforcement for punishment.

Beast has horns and wears a cloak designed to look like there are bruises on the coat. Other than that, no one seems to know who the Beast really is. Eight superheroes called the Justices, who are the protectors of U, are on the hunt for Beast. The leader of the Justices is a blonde alpha male named Justin, who is the most ambitious one in the group who wants to find and capture Beast.

Through a series of circumstances, Belle ends up meeting Beast, who lives as a recluse in his castle. He is very standoffish and rude to her at first. He even orders her to leave on more than one occasion. But eventually, Belle ends up gaining Beast’s trust, and they become close. Belle is aware that Beast is being hunted, but she is determined not to betray him by turning him into the authorities.

Meanwhile, the hunt for Beast and guessing the real identity of Beast have become an obsession for the residents of U. All sorts of people are accused of being Beast, with many having to prove their innocence. And this guessing game becomes big business, as Beast merchandise and other Beast-related ventures become hot-selling moneymakers. It’s this movie’s clever commentary on how gossip and fads quickly spread.

One of the ways that “Belle” is a big departure from other interpretations of “Beauty and the Beast” is that there is no romance between Belle and Beast. Instead, they form a genuine friendship that doesn’t always go smoothly. Suzu/Belle’s feels a connection to Beast, because they are both lost and wounded souls who want to hide their true selves from the world.

“Belle” also offers an incisive view of how people create online personas to feel better about themselves because they don’t like their lives in the real world. The movie also doesn’t shy away from depicting how this fakery can actually backfire in people’s attempts to boost their egos. With Suzu, it somewhat messes with her mind that she’s so popular in U, but she’s still an ignored “nobody” in the real world. People around Suzu go crazy for Belle, so Suzu starts to wonder if they would still feel the same way about Belle if they knew Suzu was the real person behind this avatar.

However, Suzu isn’t quite the outcast that she thinks she is. At school, Suzu seems to be oblivious to attention from a fellow student named Shinobu Hisatake, whom she rejects every time he makes an attempt to hang out with her. Suzu and Shinobu have known each other since childhood. He’s described as someone who proposed marriage to Suzu when she was 6 years old.

Another student at their school is Kamishin, who is bullied by some other students for being eccentric. Kamishin has started a canoe club where he is the only member. He seems comfortable with who he is, but could he be hiding any dark feelings about being a social pariah? Suzu, Hiro and Shinobu all know Kamishin, but they aren’t close friends with him.

Meanwhile, viewers will also be wondering who’s the person behind the Beast avatar, who definitely identifies as male. That’s why in addition to being a story about love between friends, “Belle” is also a mystery. There’s a major plot development in “Belle” that’s a big departure from the usual “Disney princess movie” formula. This twist to the story comes in the last third of the film and results in the movie’s biggest emotional moments.

“Belle” not only has a richly layered story, but the anime visuals are top-notch. The world of U can be dark and foreboding (such as Beast’s castle) or a brightly lit, vibrant paradise filled with fantastical whimsy, such as the environment where Belle does her musical performances. Suzu’s world is also vividly designed as a small town that affected by modern technology. The songs in “Belle” suit the story, but the visuals and screenplay are the movie’s strongest high points.

The voices of the “Belle” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on which version of “Belle” that you see. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Kaho Nakamura as Suzu/Belle, Takeru Satoh as Beast/Dragon, Lilas Ikuta as Hiro, Ryō Narita as Shinobu, Shōta Sometani as Kamishin, Kōji Yakusho as Suzu’s father, Sumi Shimamoto as Suzu’s mother, Tina Tamashiro as Ruka and Toshiyuki Morikawa as Justin. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Kylie McNeill as Suzu/Belle, Paul Castro Jr. as Beast/Dragon, Jessica DiCicco as Hiro, Manny Jacinto as Shinobu, Brandon Engman as Kamishin, Ben Lepley as Suzu’s father, Julie Nathanson as Suzu’s mother, Hunter Schafer as Ruka and Chace Crawford as Justin.

Even though “Belle” is a great anime achievement, the movie was not nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. Hosoda’s 2018 film “Mirai” was Oscar-nominated in this category, even though “Belle” is a far superior movie. We’ll never really know why “Belle” got snubbed by the Academy Awards, but a logical explanation might be that not enough Academy Awards voters saw “Belle.” With or without an Oscar nomination, “Belle” is worth seeing as a visual treat and as an emotionally touching story of substance.

GKIDS released “Belle” for special sneak-preview screenings in select U.S. cinemas on January 12, 2022. “Belle” arrived in wider release in U.S. cinemas on January 14, 2022. The movie was originally released in Japan in 2021.

Review: ‘What We Found,’ starring Jordan Hall, Oona Laurence, James Ransone, Brandon Larracuente, Julian Shatkin, Giorgia Whigham and Elizabeth Mitchell

August 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Julian Shatkin, Jordan Hall and Oona Laurence in “What We Found” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

“What We Found” 

Directed by Ben Hickernell

Culture Representation: Taking place in Baltimore, the crime drama “What We Found” features a racially diverse cast (white and African American with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the upper-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash:  After being harassed by a school bully, a nerdy teen enlists his two best friends to investigate the disappearance of one his female schoolmates who was romantically involved with the bully.

Culture Audience: “What We Found” will appeal primarily to people who like teen-oriented dramas that have formulaic tendencies.

Elizabeth Mitchell and James Ransone in “What We Found” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

You know those young-adult mystery novels that have teenage sleuths who are better at solving crimes than the local police? The type of books that try to be classics like “Nancy Drew” and “The Hardy Boys” series, but end up being very forgettable? “What We Found” is the movie equivalent of those substandard novels. It’s a solidly acted drama, but the action-filled showdown at the end of the film stretches so much credibility that it ends up turning the film into a predictable and unimaginative dud.

Written and directed by Ben Hickernell, “What We Found” (which takes place in Baltimore) tells the tale of two worlds that collide: The relatively safe world of a middle-class public high school and the dangerous world of drug dealing. The story’s main protagonist is a smart science-and-tech whiz named Marcus Jackson (played by Jordan Hall), who has just started his freshman year at Goldspring High School.

Marcus has led somewhat of a sheltered existence with his widowed mother Alex Jackson (played by Yetide Badaki), who is very protective of her only child. Marcus’ two best friends are feisty Holly (played by Oona Laurence) and privileged Grant (played by Julian Shatkin). Holly and Marcus are in the same freshman class at Goldspring High School, which has a reputation for having tougher students than Keatonsville Middle School, where Marcus and Holly previously attended. Grant, who’s about two years older than Marcus and Holly, goes to a private school and drives a Porsche, but he doesn’t let his wealth and older age get in the way of their friendship.

Holly has a very unhappy life at home, because her parents Art (played by Shannon Brown) and Bridget (played Sunny Edelman) are constantly arguing, and Art physically abuses Bridget. Grant’s parents seem to have a happy marriage, and they indulge in some vices. Grant tells Holly and Marcus that his parents have “date nights” where they like to get stoned. On one of those nights, Grant has taken some of his parents’ marijuana for the three friends to sneak off somewhere and smoke.

While the three pals sit around and smoke outside in a deserted hangout area, they look at the stars and Marcus shows some of his fascination with outer space by reeling off some of his trivia about planets. Grant knows that Marcus can be perceived as a scrawny nerd and will be a target for bullies, so Grant asks Marcus if he’s ready to go to Goldspring High School. Marcus says that he can handle the tough crowds at the school.

On Marcus’ first day of school at Goldspring, one of the first people he sees is his former babysitter: an energetic teenager named Cassie (played by Giorgia Whigham), who introduces Marcus to her boyfriend Brian Santini (played by Donald Dash), a popular athlete at the school. During a lunch break outside in a school dining area, Marcus and Holly meet two friendly seniors: Karl (played by Paul Castro Jr.) and Ned (played by Anubhav Jain), who tell Marcus and Holly about Hell House, an abandoned dwelling in the woods where some of the local teenagers like to party.

Marcus is eager to impress these upperclassmen, so he shows them a trick where he can hack into nearby phones and install and activate various sound-effects apps without the phone user’s permission. As a prank, Marcus does the trick on a few of the phones of the students nearby. The prank gets some intended laughs, as the phone users show surprise when the apps are loudly activated. One of the apps has the sound effects of a woman having an orgasm, and Marcus randomly activates it on the phone of Clay Howard (played by Brandon Larracuente), who also happens to be the biggest bully in the school.

Clay is angry that someone hacked into his phone. And when he notices that Marcus and his group are laughing a little too hard, Clay immediately goes to their table, singles out Marcus (who has his phone out), and accuses Marcus of hacking his phone. Clay looks like he’s about to start a fight with Marcus until a teacher steps in and diffuses the situation. Marcus is too scared to admit that he did the hacking, but he now knows that he’s made a potential enemy in Clay.

And sure enough, when Marcus and Holly are hanging out later at Hell House with some of the local teen stoners, Clay shows up and intimidates Marcus, until Marcus admits that he hacked into Clay’s phone. This admission enrages Clay, who roughs him up and taunts Marcus with degrading insults, while one of Clay’s cronies video records it all on his phone. And of course, the video is posted on social media, which adds to Marcus’ humiliation.

After this bullying incident, Cassie tells Clay to stop harassing Marcus. Clay abruptly stops trying to pick a fight with Marcus. It’s the first indication that something is going on between Clay and Cassie, whose body language when they’re together suggest that they might be having a secret relationship, even though Cassie is dating Brian.

Later, Cassie warns Marcus when they’re alone together that Clay is a big problem: “Be careful with him,” Cassie tells Marcus. “I found things he was hiding from me. Watch your back.”

It isn’t long before the truth comes out: Cassie has been cheating on Brian with Clay. It leads to Clay and Brian getting into a huge physical fight outside the high school, with several students watching this brawl. Some school officials break up the fight. Clay and Brian then get suspended.

But then something strange happens: Cassie disappears. Her disappearance causes more unease in the area, which has been plagued by a string of recent murders, which the media and the local police suspect are related to the drug-dealing gangs in the area. Two of the cops involved in the missing-persons investigation are Captain Katherine Hilman (played by Elizabeth Mitchell) and Sergeant Steven Mohler (played by James Ransone), who has some resentment toward Captain Hilman because she declined to give him a promotion.

Brian and Clay are both seen as “persons of interest” in Cassie’s disappearance because of the love triangle between the three of them. Marcus takes Cassie’s disappearance personally, and he suspects that Clay is involved in some way. And so, Marcus, Holly and Grant start being teen detectives to find out what happened to Cassie.

“What We Found” has some typical scenes of the teens (especially Marcus) doing some spying as part of their detective work. Marcus also uses his computer skills to help them in their quest. The cast members’ acting is good overall, with Laurence as a standout for her portrayal of Holly’s complicated emotions over her dysfunctional family. On the other hand, Larracuente (as Clay the bully) could use some more acting lessons, since he over-acts in some of the scenes while his scene partners are being more realistic.

Ultimately, “What We Found” suffers from a screenplay that often gets too clunky. The friendship between Marcus, Holly and Grant is one of the best things about the story. Their dialogue is authentic and the situations that happen between them as high-school students are portrayed realistically.

But the movie falls short in other areas, particularly in how it portrays the local cops and criminals. Baltimore is a big city, but the movie makes the local police force look like it’s in a small town. And there’s a big chase scene toward the end of the film that will have people rolling their eyes at how ludicrous some situations play out. For example, the movie has the dumb cliché of a villain pointing a gun at someone in the middle of a high-octane action scene, and then pausing for a monologue instead of shooting the gun.

Because there are too many formulaic ways that this story is told, “What We Found” gives the impression that it’s a forgettable made-for-TV movie instead of a truly cinematic experience. Writer/director Hickernell tries to aim for some gritty social commentary in the movie about crime and corruption, but in the end, those messages are glossed over in a trite manner that will disappoint people who want something more original.

Freestyle Digital Media released “What We Found” on digital and VOD on August 4, 2020.

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