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(Good Friday and work obligations sadly made me miss yesterday, but I’m back on the wagon. Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a curtal sonnet, an 11-line sonnet variant from Gerard Manley Hopkins.)

In the realm of cyberspace I hide,
Comforted by anonymity.
My flesh-self is content behind its smokescreen.
Robed in pixels, I can roam with pride,
Finding other introverts to agree,
Minorities like ghosts in the machine.

Life from womb to here has left me wincing;
Life since logging on is fancy-free,
Far easier to spurn the cruel and mean.
I’m someone else, and boy, am I convincing,
As you’ve seen.

MPA rating:  PG

In anime circles, a new film from Mamoru Hosoda is an event. From Summer Wars to Wolf Children to the Oscar-nominated Mirai, he’s proven to be one of the most skilled anime directors around, and Belle promised to be yet another win. A modern riff on Beauty and the Beast fusing music and social media, the film garnered a fourteen-minute standing ovation at Cannes, making me wonder if it was just a case of no one wanting to be the first to stop clapping. Belle is another strong film in Hosoda’s oeuvre, but, like Encanto, it’s also proof that a film can be good while also being deeply flawed.

In the near-future of Belle, a digital world called U has become the most popular metaverse for people across the globe to interact with avatars somehow extrapolated from their own biometrics, resulting in an array of bizarre appearances ranging from babies to superheroes to literal hands with a face on it, which no one seems to object to. Suzu is a self-conscious high school student still haunted by her mother’s death, but when she logs into U as the beautiful Bell (which is what Suzu means), she finds that the anonymity allows her to sing again and, much to her surprise, become a celebrity. As she deals with the flurry of differing opinions that come with fame, she grows curious about the aggressive avatar known as the Beast, whose unknown identity is hunted by U’s authorities.

Hosoda is no stranger to virtual worlds, having previously worked with the concept in Digimon and Summer Wars, so it’s no surprise that the world of U is dazzling, an eye-popping blend of 3D and 2D animation, thanks in part to backgrounds from Cartoon Saloon. It’s easily Hosoda’s most visually resplendent and imaginative film that still carries his calling cards (he must have a thing for flying whales). The bad thing about U is that so much of it is left unexplained. While OZ in Summer Wars had several clear real-world applications, the avatars in U are never shown doing much more than floating around and commenting, though there are concerts and fighting tournaments, I suppose. Plus, it’s never clear how the real-world users are interacting with the virtual world; at some points, it’s as if their avatars are mirroring their real body’s movements, but is it like Ready Player One-style mechanics? There’s mention of sharing the senses of their avatars, so how can they see both U and the real world when logged in? Questions like that just require a suspension of disbelief that divorces the virtual and real worlds for the sake of the story.

The virtual world is ostensibly the main fantastical draw of the film, but I honestly enjoyed the parts in the real world more. The high school romance drama is nothing unusual for the genre, but the relatable supporting characters are an endearing bunch, particularly during a laughably awkward love confession. It was also a nice subversion to reveal the usually unsympathetic popular girl as a genuinely caring friend. However, the real world is also where the story falters toward the end. The revelation of the Beast’s identity is a powerful moment that speaks to the trauma of hidden abuse, yet it’s a reality for which the film doesn’t really have an answer. One culminating sacrifice hits an emotional high, but Suzu’s efforts afterward are unrealistic and absent of any long-term solution.

Belle has a lot of impressive elements in service to a somewhat half-baked plot, and the Beauty and the Beast parallels are rather incidental to the main story. Its vision of social media feeding frenzies and the online experience are timely and well-executed, while Suzu’s journey to understand the meaning of selflessness is suitably moving as well. And though the songs sometimes feel shoehorned in, I must give props to their quality, including the English recordings for the dub, and I think that the climactic “A Million Miles Away” would have been a worthy nominee for a Best Song Oscar if the Academy would look around more. Belle may not match the likes of Wolf Children, but it lives up to Summer Wars and exceeds Mirai, in my opinion. The visual splendor on display largely overshadows the plot issues, just as long as you don’t think about it too much.

Rank:  List Runner-Up

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