One can never really predict what we’ll discover with art — what emotions, what memories, what reactions will be triggered through an artist’s work. When I first learned of writer/director Mamoru Hosoda’s BELLE, I presumed, like most, that it would be an interpretation of the 1740 French fairy tale La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) through his particular digital age lens. Though the narrative takes place in a digital space, U, similar to the one presented in his 2009 film Summer Wars, BELLE is not the tale as old as time you expect, but an exploration of trauma and grief that, quite literally, shook me to my core. As I followed his protagonist, Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura/Kylie McNeill), through a journey of self-discovery, I, too, discovered something in myself, something which I hadn’t realized was there. What a glorious and freeing gift it was, being able to put a name to something whose presence I’d long grown accustomed to. This is the beauty of art, the beauty of BELLE. Now, thanks to a partnership between Shout! Factory and GKids Films, BELLE is coming available, first on digital and then then on physical formats, loaded with bonus materials longer in length than the feature film itself. Prepare to dig deeper in BELLE, prepare to dig deeper in U.
To learn about BELLE in a spoiler-free context, head to the initial theatrical release review. Moving forward there will be specific plot points discussed. Additionally, unlike most EoM home release reviews, this one gets personal.
Teen Suzu is quiet and shy, keeping mostly to herself when not spending time with her best friend Hiro (voiced by Lilas Ikuta/Jessica DiCicco). She’d love nothing more than to stand out like classmates Ruka (voiced by Tina Tamashiro/Hunter Schafer) or Shinjiro Chikami (voiced by Shôta Sometani/Brandon Engman) and to speak to Shinobu Hisatake (voiced by Ryô Narita/Manny Jacinto) without the weight of his childhood promise to watch over her. More than this, she’d love to sing again, to be free of the grief of her loss so that she could once more partake in something so closely tied to her mother. But she can’t. That is, until Hiro introduces her to U, a digital world in which users engage and explore the virtual space via an avatar tied to their biometrics. Once inside U, all that holds her back is suddenly lifted, freeing her to find her voice again. Known as Bell in U, what she doesn’t expect is how many in U connect with her voice, her words, resulting in her becoming an international sensation. Her latest concert is interrupted by the arrival of the notorious figure known as The Dragon (voiced by Takeru Satoh/Paul Castro Jr.) who’s trying to escape the clutches of U’s self-proclaimed protectors lead by Justin (voiced by Toshiyuki Morikawa/Chace Crawford). Recognizing something in The Dragon she knows from herself, Bell decides to track him down, setting herself down a path that will either destroy everything she’s built or finally set her free.
Given that BELLE is inspired by the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, there’s a reasonable expectation that the film would follow similar beats in the execution of this new interpretation. What’s absolutely beautiful is while the audience expects the film to be a romantic love story, specifically between Bell and The Dragon, and there are many moments which set-up such a notion, the actual story we get is one of mutual pain via grief and trauma. For Bell, this means an exploration of Suzu and the loss of her mother. Shown in the beginning, we see her mother rush off, quickly telling little Suzu that someone has to do something or the girl will die, setting Suzu on a path of internal struggle, feeling left behind by her mother’s choice of a different life over her (the mother’s) own. This is a memory that Suzu keeps coming back to as she struggles to sing, to make changes in her current circumstance, which, until she enters U, only results in a compressed vocalization followed by a violent physical reaction. To sing is to experience the pain all over again. Thus, upon entering U, upon understanding how the biometrics work between the physical and digital space, Suzu as Bell becomes freed and sings, unburdened for the first time in ages, the extraordinary “Gales of Song.” As we discover with The Dragon, or Kei in the real world, the reason he’s as powerful as he is in U is due to the way the biometrics of U translate his ability to take abuse in the real world as strength. Where everyone sees a monster in U, in the real world he’s a child trying to protect his younger brother from the abuse of their widowed father. By the end, Suzu comes to understand her mother’s sacrifice as she herself (Suzu) stands up for Kei and his brother, finally stopping the abuse by serving as a shield. Like her mother, she’s willing to absorb the pain if it means others don’t suffer. There are no easy answers in BELLE and each confrontation is treated with grace and dignity so that not a single character feels like a trope or stereotype. Especially as the truth of The Dragon is revealed and the truth of the love story comes to fruition, BELLE becomes a tale of mutual healing, growth, and restoration.
In my case, in that final confrontation, I realized something in myself that I had longed for as a child, something which lingers now and, through therapy, am exploring — the want of a shield. I’ve seen BELLE three times now — once in November 2021, once before the U.S. theatrical release, and once for this home review — and each time I find myself devastated by the end. The first time, as much as I loved the songs (though they were in the native Japanese, so my appreciation could only go so far between the arrangements and Nakamura’s beautiful voice) and felt moved by them, the ending totally took me by surprise and I found myself bawling, just wrecked with a pain I recognized but couldn’t put words to. The expectation for BELLE was for it to follow the narrative of Beauty and the Beast, a love story between two incomplete people. What Hosoda gives us, however, is a story of two people, broken by grief and trauma, finding strength within each other. Giving to each other what was missing so that they might heal and become something close to whole. Watching Suzu standing still, blood running down her cheek, facing Kei’s father in all his rage, it hit me why this looked familiar and why it hurt: I did not have such a shield when I needed it. Since then, as I’ve loved listening to the score and music from the English cast, it continues to cause me to tear up as it causes me to identify the past and recognize that I’m safe in the present. These songs speak to Suzu’s journey of reclamation, yet I cannot help but feels something similar with each song, as they convey her path of pain and healing so does it speak to my own. One never knows how a piece of art will impact them and, personally, having loved the ideas of Summer Wars, the last thing I expected was to find a wound I’d long forgotten to be torn open for reexamination. With each subsequent watch of BELLE, I don’t feel like I’m reopening that wound… rather, I feel just a bit more restored, a bit more healed through the recognition of a shared pain and the possibility of protection, which I now have in spades.
Apologies to those who came to this just wanting to know about the home release in terms of reproduction and bonus materials. Now it’s your turn.
First, the reproduction is wonderful with no glitches, buffering issues, or any of the problems that can arise from a digital experience (which my last two watches were). The sound comes through clearly, the music even more lovely via the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. I opted for the English cast on the home watch as I hadn’t experienced it yet and was curious. Outside of some obvious issues with ADR lining up the mouth movements during the singing portions, the spoken dialogue lined up perfectly. For those who prefer the original cast, the Japanese language track is also coded DTS-HD MA 5.1. Subtitles are offered in English for the hard of hearing, English, and Spanish on both the Blu-ray and DVD. Speaking of, the regular physical edition (available from both Shout! Factory and GKids) includes both Blu-ray and DVD disc and the Target-exclusive steelbook reportedly does as well. GKids has announced an upcoming 3-Disc 4K UHD collector’s edition, though no details on what it includes or when it will be released is known.
Second, let’s talk bonus materials.
Included on the Blu-ray are roughly 152 minutes of interviews, behind the scenes footage, making-of materials, and other tidbits to provide as complete a picture of how the film was made from conception to release. This includes a multi-portion documentary titled “The Making of BELLE” that includes a variety of crew members in various departments discussing their participation in the project that’s nearly 45 minutes in length. This includes a nearly-30-minute featurette titled “A Conversation with Director Mamoru Hosoda” that’s strictly a talking head interview wherein the writer/director talks about not just the making of the film, but how the pandemic shifted the premiere to the 2021 Cannes Film Festival just one day before the Japanese release date. He also discusses how he feels the animation industry as a whole is shifting and expanding in exciting ways. If you’re interested in more technical aspects, jump to either the almost-nine-minute “Hosoda Draws BELLE,” 10-minute “Scene Breakdown: The Station,” or the 12-minute “Scene Breakdown: The Ballroom” where Hosoda walks through the process of character creation by literally drawing Bell or taking you through the blocking/staging of two specific scenes and the emotional power of each scene through the execution. Interested in more from Hosoda, you can listen to two spliced together interviews that took place during the 2021 Animation is Film Festival in the 18-minute “Mamoru Hosoda at Animation is Film.” This one provides some interesting perspective regarding his creative process, though much of this is covered in other on-disc materials. Finally, for the music fans, you can enjoy the 15-minute “The Music of BELLE,” the just-about-12-minute “Finding the Voice of Belle,” and a music video of McNeil singing “Gales of Song.” The two featurettes dig into the making of the film as a whole, while “Finding the Voice of Belle” specifically explores the process of dubbing for the English cast, how they found McNeil, and what it was like for her to match the talent of original Suzu/Bell Nakamura. Seriously, if you loved the music, whether the composition of the score or the lyrics to the songs, there’s a lot to enjoy here. The bonus features are, of course, rounded out through the inclusion of trailers for BELLE, as well as an image gallery featuring 165 slides of character designs and other artwork that you can either manually control or allow an auto-play to run through them for you.
Be advised that the only way to get all of the above bonus features is to purchase one of the Blu-ray editions of BELLE. The design gallery, McNeil performing “Gales of Song,” and the extensive “Making of BELLE” are not included on the digital editions of BELLE.
BELLE currently sits as sixth favorite film of 2021 and is the second best animated film to be released in that theatrical year. (My favorite is The Mitchells vs. The Machines.) I love BELLE for many reasons — the creativity, the subverting of expectations, the way it plants many of its narrative seeds in plain sight early on, the production design, the character design, the animation, and, of course, the music — but I think I love it most for how this very specific story, in all of its narrow scope, still comes across as universal, able to reach audiences of different generations, genders, and nationalities through the shared desire to be free, to be loved, to be whole. Personally, I will be forever grateful for BELLE for providing me an opportunity to be guided through a storm I didn’t realize I was still suffering through the gales of.
BELLE Special Features:
- A Conversation with Director Mamoru Hosoda (29:14)
- The Music of BELLE (15:32)
- Hosoda Draws BELLE (8:50)
- Two (2) Scene Breakdowns
- The Station (10:38)
- The Ballroom (12:07)
- Finding the Voice of Belle (11:50)
- Mamoru Hosoda at Animation is Film (18:05)
- The Making of BELLE* (44:06)
- Kylie McNeill Performs “Gales of Song”* (2:37)
- Design Gallery*
*Only available on the Blu-ray disc
Available on digital May 3rd, 2022.
A 4K Collector’s Edition is currently planned for release at a time to be announced.
For more information, head to the GKids Films’s official BELLE website.