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Waterfront Festival

Film Review: Belle: The Dragon and the Freckled Princess

4 February 22 words: Jeremy Arblaster

This Ghibli-inspired anime blends the magical with the real, to fantastic effect... 

Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Starring: Kaho Nakamura, Ryô Narita, Shôta Sometani
Running time: 121 minutes

Written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mirai), Belle: The Dragon and the Freckled Princess takes the classic tale of Beauty & the Beast and updates it for the gamer generation in this remarkable and ambitious anime. 

Suzu, an awkward and self-conscious teenager still trying to come to terms with the tragic loss of her mother, rediscovers her passion for music when she signs up to the virtual world of ‘U’, home to 5 billion users and counting. U offers users a chance to “start over”, again and again in a universe built to provide an escape into a digital world where you can become anyone or anything. Suzu is transformed into a glamorous and beautiful avatar, who earns the nickname ‘Belle’ due to her beauty.

But this world contains all the vitriol and stress that our own world contains, and as Belle amasses more and more followers on the back of her beautiful singing voice, she quickly discovers that there really is no escape from the pressures of judgement and the hurtful comments from others. Luckily her internet-savvy friend Hiro-chan is there to point her in the direction of the more positive responses. 

As Belle gives her biggest performance yet, a show reminiscent of digital concerts given in the Fortnite world by the likes of Arianna Grande, her moment is rudely interrupted by the appearance of the ‘dragon’ – a mysterious martial arts master, covered in battle scars and being chased by the Justices, the self-appointed lawmakers of the U. In a world where anonymity is key, the Justices represent the biggest threat, capable of ‘unveiling’ any user’s origin. And though the dragon ignites controversy amongst the community, Belle recognises a kindred spirit, and seeks out the mysterious creature in his hidden castle, who saves Belle from being unveiled herself.

Unashamedly influenced by Studio Ghibli, Belle manages what all good Ghibli films do - making the mundane look magical

The dragon, or ‘beast’ as he’s known, is solitary but strong, and Hosada is keen to do his own unveiling as the film delves into the physical and emotional scars left behind on the victims of abuse and trauma. 

This is where the heart of Belle really lies, accurately caricaturing the toxic and poisonous aspects of the digital age, while focusing on hope, beauty and strength of character. And for all the beauty and intricacy of the digital world of U, it’s the human world that stands out in short but stunningly detailed backgrounds to Suzu’s quiet sadness. The U’s Belle may be the star attraction, but she’d be nothing without the beautiful human world that Hosada creates to anchor the story, and that starts with Suzu. Perhaps this is the overriding message. A chorus of hope and support. 

The best fairytales aren’t those that whisk us away to completely unrecognisable worlds, but those that have their grounding in reality, while maintaining a sprinkling of magic throughout. Unashamedly influenced by Studio Ghibli – Hosada was once in line to direct Howl’s Moving Castle but left the project - Belle manages what all good Ghibli films do, making the mundane look magical so that it fits alongside a world of dragons, warriors and princesses. 

Did you know? The main theme and first song you hear in this movie is by Japanese music group Millennium Parade, and there are many subtle hints and references to the group within the movie.

Belle: The Dragon and the Freckled Princess is now available in cinemas. 

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