The headline is not a joke. I’m being completely serious.
Now, I’m not talking about Zuckerberg’s new-fangled aspirations for Facebook. The metaverse is an idea and ideal that he’s merely co-opted (in all likelihood in an attempt to cover up the latest in a long line of scandals). The term was coined three decades ago in Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel “Snow Crash.” Most recently, the metaverse was given fictionalized life in Steven Spielberg’s (“West Side Story (2021)”) milquetoast adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel “Ready Player One.” While it was a little too video-gamey and Internet Protocol-focused, it more or less summed up the gist of the metaverse: a virtual reality for the globe to mingle, play, quarrel and do all the things we do in real life but virtually.
In other words, it’s the Matrix but fun, and we’re all Neo and can also order pizza and read our emails and stuff.
In “Belle,” writer-director Mamoru Hosoda’s (“Mirai”) latest anime feature film, the metaverse takes the form of a virtual reality app called U. Using your biometric information, it automatically generates a wacky and fantastical avatar (known as an AS) that, in some esoteric manner, represents you. (I can only imagine the existential crises evoked by firing up the app and getting served the sick burn of having your avatar be like… a baby or something.)
For high school student Suzu (singer-songwriter Kaho Nakamura in her feature debut), her AS takes the form of a radiant, pink-haired Amazon who goes by the name of Bell. In real life, Suzu is a timorous student with a single friend and a dad she doesn’t talk to. She nurtures a passion for music, but after the passing of her mother at an early age (told through a classic little heroic-sacrifice, my-parent-was-too-good-for-this-world flashback), she finds herself psychosomatically unable to sing.
But not so in the metaverse. Within U, she can shed her mortal coil and all those worldly woes and sing to her heart’s content. And not just hers, but everyone’s — in the world of U, Bell is splendidly and ridiculously famous for her singing.
Then a big bad monster, alternatively called the Dragon or the Beast (Takeru Satoh, “Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning”), shows up being chased by a team of self-appointed U police called the Justices. They look like lame superheroes, and a weird number of them are furries. Their superpowers include doxxing, which is not even a joke — their goal is to reveal the Beast’s identity because that is justice, somehow. Bell is transfixed by the Beast, everyone else hates him, you know the rest.
All of that is fine and dandy. “Beauty and the Beast” is a tale as old as time, and “Belle” takes place in a time like no other — the near future of the Information Age. Virtual reality opens the door for unbridled imagination, hideous beasts and pop stars being among the faintest of possibilities, both in-universe and from a narrative perspective. From “Sword Art Online,” a dubious show populated by richly decorated virtual worlds, to Hosoda’s earlier feature “Summer Wars,” anime has rendered many a captivating VR setting, running the gamut from archaic fantasy worlds to gonzo futurism. “U is another reality, and AS is another you,” goes the slogan.
Except that U is pretty fantastically boring. “Belle” has a big worldbuilding problem.
I have no idea what U actually is. As near as I could tell, the virtual world mostly consists of a bunch of skyscrapers suspended in a featureless void, about which floating, heterogenous hordes of the bizarro avatars of the app’s “five billion users” surge about like traffic on the highway. Sometimes a whale encrusted with speakers instead of barnacles shows up.
The worldbuilding problem extends beyond the scenery. There’s vague talk of martial arts halls, and the Beast frequently dukes it out with the self-righteous super-doxxers, but the parameters of combat within a virtual space are utterly undefined, leaving the stakes nonexistent and the choreography utterly unimpressive. Why the Beast is even a “threat to order within U” is mostly unaddressed — without a notion of what people can and can’t do in U, the fact that the Beast fights in never-seen fighting competitions “unfairly” and is thus a nuisance is meaningless. The rules outside of U are neither told nor shown, either. “Belle” does not employ the trope of “if you die in the game you die in real life.” The logout option is pristinely preserved, leaving the hanging question of why any of the many fight and chase sequences carry an ounce of weight.
Fantasy and science fiction often suffer from a self-destructive tendency to over-exposit. While “Belle” avoids this popular sin, it overcorrects — the dearth of exposition or really any worldbuilding at all, subtle or otherwise, robs the film of weight and urgency.
But fantasy and sci-fi also operate on suspension of disbelief. This doesn’t exonerate the film’s lack of infrastructure and questionable verisimilitude — but lower your threshold for what’s believable, and it has quite a bit to offer in other departments.
The animation is captivating and malleable. The real world is represented by Hosoda’s signature style — balancing the soft, inviting character work of Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”) and the lush, hyper-realistic backgrounding of Makoto Shinkai (“Your Name”) — while the virtual space of U is rendered with a glossy, CGI style reminiscent of many modern multiplayer video games. The Japanese countryside is always pleasant to look at, and while I wish U had been a little meatier, what it did do was imaginative. The speaker-whales were random, but how can you not love speaker-whales?
“Belle” is often touching and frequently hilarious. Suzu’s struggle to fit in and the film’s representation of high school politics produce a charmingly comical sense of nostalgia. When Suzu’s childhood friend and unrequited crush Shinobu (Ryo Narita, “Homunculus”) casually touches Suzu’s hand, her social life is thrust into a melodramatic conflagration brilliantly represented by the visuals of a strategy board game, like Risk or Catan. The film’s novel choice to populate its runtime with unusually long takes — a tactic especially foreign to the animated medium, considering the static nature of illustration — proves especially fruitful. The awkward, ill-conducted social interactions of uncomfortable teenagers are littered with pregnant pauses that generate a gradually bubbling, impossible-to-resist humor.
The film likewise balances its thematic through lines admirably — allowing Suzu to learn the benefits and pitfalls of selflessness (“Why did you choose the life of a stranger over your life with me?” more or less sums up the moral valley in which she begins the film, in contrast to the unimpeachable righteous Belle of the fairy tale) while taking an optimistic, if not entirely original, view of internet culture. It’s not a digital doom nor is it the great democratizer — merely an extension of reality, a tool for connection and freedom to some and augmenter of the worst, most trollish qualities of others.
So, take it or leave it. This repackaging of “Beauty and the Beast” is a filmic fool’s gold. Shoddily-constituted, not quite the genuine article, but hey — it sparkles.
Film Beat Editor Jacob Lusk can be reached at [email protected].