“Belle” vibrantly reimagines ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in Clark Park


“You may not be able to start over in the real world, but you can start over in the world of the U.”

So intones a Siri-esque narrator as we are guided through a vibrant digital cityscape, the camera at last comes to rest on a pop star astride a flying whale amongst an ocean of cheering fans. It’s a visually arresting opening to “Belle,” a 21st century reimagining of “Beauty and the Beast,” playing for free in Clark Park in West Philadelphia at 7 p.m., Friday, June 7.

Originally released in 2021, the latest feature from veteran Japanese director and animator Mamoru Hosoda, “Belle” is less a retelling of the classic fairy tale, and more a remix. The classic elements are here – the exiled monster, a compassionate heroine, a sprawling castle – but they are employed in a modern story about social media, identity, and healing. On the other side of the computer screen, Belle is Suzu (Kaho Nakamura), a shy high school girl, reeling from the death of her mother several years earlier. In the real world, grief prevents her from sharing her voice with others. In the world of U, anonymity allows her to not only share her gift, but become a pop sensation. When her concert is interrupted by a fight between U’s self-appointed police and a beast named The Dragon, Suzu sees familiar pain in the creature and embarks on a quest to learn his identity.

Suzu’s quest to connect with The Dragon takes place across both the “real” and digital worlds, both of which are thoughtfully rendered by Hosoda and his animators. In contrast to the overwhelming vibrancy of U, the Japanese countryside where Suzu resides is defined by stillness. A muted color palette of greens and yellows underscores the quiet and distance in Suzu’s homelife. Refreshingly, Hosoda does not place the real and digital worlds in opposition to one another. There are moments of beauty and horror to be found in each. “Belle” takes social media not as a social ill or a thing to be reckoned with, but as another facet of modern life that presents its own unique set of challenges.

As our lives increasingly take place on digital stages and those lives have become more publicly visible than ever, we create personas for ourselves. Digital lives can allow us to express the parts of us we’re unable or unwilling to express to our neighbors, friends, or coworkers. Belle is about those personas. The film’s greatest strength is taking “a tale as old as time” (Disney fans will recognize a familiar ballroom dance scene from 1991’s award winning “Beauty and the Beast”) and using it as a framework with which it can tell an original story about the digital masks we wear, and the ways we strive to show one another what’s underneath. 

Belle will screen in Japanese audio with English subtitles. The screening is free, but online registration is requested. You are invited to bring your own blankets, chairs, and picnics. Fans of anime and cosplay are encouraged to dress in costume.

Other notable screenings this week: 

“Call Me Dancer,” 7 p.m., June 3,  Bryn Mawr Film Institute, 824 W. Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr.  

“Mean Streets”  4 p.m. and 7 p.m., June 6, The Ambler Theater, 108 E. Butler Ave.

“The Hills Have Eyes” (1977), 9:45 p.m., June 7,  The Hiway Theater, 212 Old York Road, Jenkintown.