Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Belle (2021)

I'm kind of surprised that Belle only played the one show on the Imax screen at Boston Common - has Spider-Man just not slowed down at all anywhere? Figured AMC might mix things up a bit, but, nah, just one special show, which meant it was fairly crowded even for the big room. Did pretty over the weekend, at least.

Anyway, one thing I touch on a bit here is that it feels like we're on something like 35 or 40 years of filmmakers desperately trying to make the Internet (and using computers in general) more visually fun than it is. I can't blame them for wanting to make it feel like people doing stuff, because even QuantumLink's dial-up "Habitat" on the Commodore 64 is likely more fun to watch than people typing while text for the audience to read appears. Unfortunately for them, even graphic-heavy social media today is still pretty much walls of text with occasional interruption, and people throwing emojis and GIFs at each other almost makes it worse. After all, for all that the virtual worlds in Belle and Summer Wars look cool, can you imagine actually using them as opposed to having a couple streams open in various windows? How do you actually find anything?

But folks keep trying. The "metaverse" stuff that Facebook is trying to make happen looks like warmed-over second life and other VR systems that the world has firmly rejected, and this is Hosoda's second trip to the well. In a lot of ways, he tells a good story about life in a world with the internet, but has as hard a time as anyone figuring out how to make that interesting and believable on-screen.

It's not terribly important, really. It's just interesting that the most intuitive-seeming way to represent online life fails to capture how it's not offline life and just seems like it will never actually happen.

RyĆ» to sobakasu no hime (Belle)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 January 2021 in AMC Boston Common #2 (preview, subtitled Imax Xenon)

If you need an example of how great animation can be, don't look at the big, flashy set pieces of Belle; watch the sequence where three teenagers (two of them fairly minor characters to that point) are acting weird about their crushes and paralyzed in horror at how weird they're being. It's extraordinary cartooning a step or two away from realistic that nevertheless zeroes in on exactly how something feels. Filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda could probably have built the whole movie without the more futuristic elements, but they certainly do get your attention.

He posits an online community, "U", with five billion users existing in a 3D world with "AS" avatars, a glasses-free sort of virtual reality achieved via wireless earpieces and biometric scanners connected to one's phone. Suzu Naito (voice of Kaho Nakamura) is invited in by tech-obsessed friend Hiroka (voice of Rira "Ikura" Akuta), and while in the real world she's been withdrawn ever since her mother drowned ten years ago, too shy even to talk to suddenly-tall-and-handsome childhood friend Shinobu (voice of Ryo Narita), her singing in U is an instant sensation. Hiro is able to make sure "Belle" stays anonymous, but when her performance is crashed by an online fighting-game champion. Suzu and Hiro set out to discover who he is, hoping to stay one step ahead of the platform's self-appointed enforcers.

In some ways, the most surprising thing about Belle might be which sort of movie it is not - Hosoda appears to be almost aggressively disinterested in internet stardom or what effect fame has on a teenager like Suzu, to the point where he both more or less hand-waves away how even online costuming and music production takes a team and has Hiro casually mention that the profits after that are funneled to charity. It's almost enough to make a viewer wonder why this is part of the movie other than as an excuse for the big bits of eye-popping animation which will look good in the trailer. He also introduces some backstory for U, something about "Five Sages", that doesn't really go anywhere. As a result, it sometimes feels kind of shakily constructed on the initial approach, but he and his crew are too skilled to let it collapse. The film is able to jog past bits of plot and world-building that don't make a whole lot of logical sense because its makers are exceptionally good at hitting a feeling just right. The teenagers that form most of the cast of characters are delightfully ordinary even when they're exceptional, and even as he keeps the story compact, he resists the urge to give everybody more secrets than they'd reasonably have.

This is not any sort of implication that the online/quasi-sci-fi elements are any sort of distraction or waste of time; after all, the point of the film is that even withdrawn kids like Suzu or well-balanced ones like the popular Ruka (voice of Tina Tamashiro) have big feelings, and the scenes in U are a big, visual way of getting them out there. It's a flashy contrast to the very grounded school scenes that allows for near-overload of fun designs, and Hosoda adds to that by crashing a lot of visual styles together - a Disney character designer helps out, as does an architect, and the Cartoon Saloon team from Ireland. It's a world where superheroes can attack a castle that clearly owes a lot to Disney's Beauty and the Beast, but never so engrossing that the real world, or even a more conventional internet presentation, ever feels small or less exciting.

For all that he falls into the trap of trying to make the internet much cooler visually than it is, there is something very well-observed in how Hosoda regards social media, how it is and isn't real to the people using it. One of the more clever things he does is let the realization that the "superheroes" seeking out (and intending to dox) the Beast are not official moderators but online vigilantes come to the viewer on their own schedule, playing out as an outwardly well-intentioned mob that could maybe do with minding its own business. Taking these teenagers' sometimes-clumsy point of view lets him keep privacy a bit fuzzy; both anonymity and the lack of it can be empowering, but people are often going on instinct rather than truly considering it. There is also a terrifying helplessness about how being connected with the entire world can lead someone to something awful which is too big to deal with, especially if that person is still a kid themself. It's sort of the macro version of those awkward kids - by not representing online worlds as the way they are, the abstraction gets at something true even if the details don't exactly map.

I still can't help but wonder if maybe Belle could have had its story shuffled around some to either do more with Suzu being a secret superstar or jettisoned that for a tighter focus on other things, but I'm also impressed with how it glides around its messiness. Sure, a lot of details aren't fully formed, but the kids being kids are such a delight that its smaller victories play are all the audience needs.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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