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NYFF2021: Belle: The Dragon and the Freckled Princess fuses spectacle with spirit

Belle: The Dragon and the Freckled Princess featured

Belle may try to juggle too much, but its vision deserves to be seen on the big screen.

(This is part of our ongoing NYFF coverage.)

Belle: The Dragon and the Freckled Princess, writer-director Mamoru Hosoda’s follow-up to his internationally acclaimed 2018 animated hit Mirai, tells a sprawling story that plays like a hybrid homage of, of all things, Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast and Ready Player One. In fact, there are points where it may be a little too sprawling for its own good. Still, while the various parts may not entirely coalesce neatly at the end, the best moments—and there are a number of them—are so glorious to behold that it is easy to forget the stuff that doesn’t quite add up. 

The film’s conceit is that the world has embraced a new and incredibly immersive online universe known as “U,” where participants can assume avatars. There, they float through environments that make the worlds of The Fifth Element seem spartan by comparison. One participant is Suzu (Kaho Nakamura), an awkward 17-year-old high school student who lives in a small country town with her father. She’s still reeling from the death of her mother who sacrificed her life to rescue a small child from drowning a few years earlier. Since then, despite being an excellent singer when younger, Suzu has been unable to croon a note. 

Belle: The Dragon and the Freckled Princess robot fight
(GKIDS)

With the help of a friend, Suzu adopts the U personality of Belle, a beautiful and confident young woman with an incredible singing voice. That new persona quickly makes her one of the most popular U personalities. Soon, Belle becomes a real-world sensation, too, motivating others to try and figure out her true identity. 

Despite being mortified initially, Suzu keeps returning to perform for larger audiences. At one virtual concert, she is interrupted by the arrival of another avatar, a dragon known as the Beast. While some self-appointed U guardians try to unmask and banish the Beast, Suzu senses a kindred spirit with the monster. She sets off to try to find and help them. 

Toggling between the real and virtual worlds and featuring an abundance of subplots and supporting characters, Hosoda has a lot to juggle here. There are times where it admittedly feels as if he has bitten off more than he can possibly chew. The film clocks in at two full hours with stretches where it just seems to be noodling along endlessly. Oddly enough, the two points where a little more time and explanation might have been helpful—the opening which sets up the premise and the finale in which, suffice to say, a lot of stuff happens—rush passed with an abruptness that may leave some people hanging.  

This is the kind of grand spectacle made for watching on the biggest screen imaginable to fully appreciate the vision on display.

What Belle may, at times, lack in terms of coherence, it more than makes up for in terms of sheer visual spectacle. Utilizing a blend of animation formats—2D for the real-world sequences and 3D for those set in the U—the film offers up so many stunning sights. When the film eventually arrives on Blu-Ray, I can easily imagine people pausing it at random moments just to see all of the details that Hosoda and his animators have managed to include. That doesn’t mean you should wait to see it at home, though. On the contrary, this is the kind of grand spectacle made for watching on the biggest screen imaginable to fully appreciate the vision on display. 

However, Belle: The Dragon and the Freckled Princess is more than just an exercise in sheer visual style. The story points may not add up, but the emotions driving them are instantly recognizable. Anyone who has suffered a significant loss or just feels alone and awkward in a world surrounded by others who seem to have it all together will relate. Throughout the film, we genuinely feel for Suzu—we understand her alienation in her own skin and the exhilaration she feels as Belle. When she is able to muster the confidence she feels online to try to help someone in need in the real world, it recalls her mother. Moreover, it is a moment of dramatic and emotional catharsis that has a surprisingly powerful impact. Belle may seem like pure visual spectacle at first, but by the end, it proves to be eye candy with a heart. 

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CategoriesMovies NYFF 59
Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.