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Monday, June 24, 2024

Belle (2021) (Blu-ray Review)


The Story
The Animation
The Video
The Audio
The Dub
The Supplements


A high school girl coping with the loss of her mother years earlier finds her voice as a virtual pop star in a vast online virtual reality world.

Belle is the latest anime feature film from director/writer Mamoru Hosoda (Mirai, Wolf Children, Summer Wars). A coming-of-age fantasy with a strong female protagonist, the film takes Hosoda’s animation style to brave new heights and breaks new ground, putting the director firmly on the level of a master like Hayao Miyazaki, and out of his looming shadow as well.

Suzu is a shy high school girl in the rural Kōchi Prefecture of Japan who is still coping with her mother’s death years earlier. The loss of her mother, which she personally witnessed as her mother drowned trying to save a stranger’s child, left her with feelings of abandonment and the loss of her ability to sing.  She and her father now live alone together but don’t speak much. She is isolated from much of her classmates except her best friend Hiroka Betsuyaku and her childhood friend and self-appointed protector Shinobu Hisatake, who has now grown into one of the school’s most popular guys and a great basketball player.

On the advice of her bestie Hiro-chan, Suzu joins an advanced online VR (virtual reality) community called “U” that can scan one’s internal emotions and abilities and bringing them out of someone. Inside U, Suzu’s “AS,” Bell (the English translation of her name), a gorgeous, freckled avatar, becomes a virtual singing sensation around the globe and she garners massive audiences. Her fans start calling her “Belle,” meaning beautiful.  A character inside U known as The Dragon” (or “The Beast”) begins disrupting her performances. The powerful, nearly unbeatable Dragon is being hunted by the self-appointed superheroes of U led by Justin, who plans to unmask Dragon’s true identity to the world. Suzu, feeling drawn to the Dragon, wants to find out who he really is on her own and makes a connection with the unruly “beast”.

Belle makes obvious nods to Beauty and the Beast, even giving us its own version of the classic ballroom dance scene from Disney’s adaptation, but in the hands of Hosoda, this becomes a cyberpunk fantasy version of that scene that acts an homage while taking on a life of its own.

Hosoda also manages to weave together three plots reasonably well, although it takes a little time to ease into it all and get a handle on what is going on. There is the main plot following Suzu’s coming of age and coming to terms with losing her mother, then the world inside U and finally the story of the Dragon which delves into some very complex domestic issues.

Hosoda wraps this whole thing up in his usual, magical world, breaking even new ground visually, tying together the dazzling techno-anime styles of Summer Wars with the somewhat more traditional but no less pleasing styles of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time for a heavenly visual delight.

The Video

Belle is a digitally animated film that utilizes a 2K digital intermediate and arrives in an AVC 1080p encodement framed at 2.39:1 on Blu-ray. Overall, the image looks good with crisp detail around the line art and absent that sense of softness we tend to see in a lot of anime series that are released on Blu-ray. Colors have good saturation, especially the plentiful primaries in the U online virtual world. The virtual flower petals, for instance, have vibrant, reds that ‘pop’. What ultimately keeps this disc from reaching the heights of reference levels for me is the disappointing amount of color banding that plagues much of the color fills in this release. I must take points off for this, since most high-profile feature length anime releases are usually rather pristine, like most of the Studio Ghibli releases, for instance. With this, I also see just a bit of motion artifacts in the CGI.

The Audio

Belle comes with the original Japanese and the English dub in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. There is something very restrained about this mix. It’s mastered very low, requiring me to turn the volume up about 5db higher than usual, then there is still a very limited dynamic range even given the music and grand scenes in the U world. That said, it all basically sounds good, clean, good presence in the dialogue. This is one of the better English dubs for an anime feature as well, going as far as to translate and re-record the songs in English as well, and the cast do a great job.

The Supplements

Shout! provides several making-of and behind the scenes bonus features with interviews with the director. There’s also a featurette delving into the production of the English dub.

  • DVD with Feature Film and Bonus Features
  • The Making of BELLE (1080i/60; 00:44:05; Japanese)
  • A Conversation with Director Mamoru Hosoda (1080p; 00:29:13; Japanese)
  • The Music of BELLE (1080p; 00:15:32; Japanese)
  • Finding the Voice of Belle (1080p; 00:11:49; English)
  • Scene Breakdown: The Train Station (1080p; 00:10:37; Japanese)
  • Scene Breakdown: The Ballroom (1080p; 00:12:06; Japanese)
  • Hosoda @ Animation is Film (1080p; 00:18:05; English)
  • Hosoda Draws Belle (1080p; 00:08:50; Japanese)
  • Design Gallery (1080p)
  • Kylie McNeill Performs “Gales of Song” (1080p; 00:02:37)
  • Trailers (1080p; 00:07:05)

The Final Assessment

Mamoru Hosoda returns with another gorgeous and heartfelt feature film that will astound you with its magnificent visual style and endearing characters. Shout!’s Blu-ray packs a good punch with its well-rounded selection of bonus features.

Belle is out on Blu-ray Combo May 17, 2022 from GKIDS & Shout! Factory

  • Rating Certificate: PG (for thematic content, violence, language and brief suggestive material)
  • Animation Studio: Studio Chizu
  • Distributor: Toho | GKIDS | Shout! Factory
  • Director: Mamoru Hosoda
  • Written By: Mamoru Hosoda
  • Run Time: 122 Mins.
  • Street Date: 17 May 2022
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
  • Video Format: AVC 1080p
  • Primary Audio: Japanese DTS-HD MA 5.1
  • Secondary Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1 | English Descriptive Audio
  • Subtitles: English SDH | English for Original Language Version | Spanish for Original Language Version

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A high school girl coping with the loss of her mother years earlier finds her voice as a virtual pop star in a vast online virtual reality world. Belle (2021) (Blu-ray Review)