>> Belle (2021)

As a fan of Summer Wars (2009) abstract virtual world, I had to watch Belle (2021) to see it again. Inspired from Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991), the film follows a high school girl (Suzu) regaining the ability to sing and finding her place in as an idol (Bell or Belle) in virtual space (U) then reaching out to a violent avatar (Beast) similar to its inspiration; however, I did not emotionally nor musically resonate with it because of the confusing artificiality of it all. For casual viewing, the film is still okay with its great visuals, but it fails to leave a strong mark like its predecessor to be strongly recommended.

Starting with my issue with its Disney inspiration. If a film closely uses or references another story, I prefer if it builds upon it or creates its own original work from it rather than just referencing key moments or ideas. For its Disney film inspiration, it is hitting those iconic references such as the beast, castle, rose, ballroom dance, fearmongering, mob attack and so on. While following templates or structures is not necessarily bad, the film does not go beyond enough to avoid reminding me of a better film.

What else it took is the songs. Instead of songs being a dramatic plot device or character expression is now diagetic or literal singing which removes the plot efficiency and creativity. For my favorite Disney film, Mulan (1998) songs quickly establish the setting, show character values or inner conflicts, move the story and mark key moments. While the avatar singing has character and plot uses, it feels narratively slower and less interesting to interpret and watch. While the film does not have as many songs, I wish they were more notable aside from their emotional qualities.

Moving past my grief about its reference to the film itself. The film feels incidental with its main conflict who the real user of the Beast is. While a virtual police force somewhat exists to do exactly that, the protagonist and her friend decide to do it themselves out of petty revenge or curiosity for crashing one of their concerts. As with the inspiration, the Beast is eventually portrayed as sympathetic or abused despite the actual crimes, but the protagonist loses their motivation with the hunt leaving the story hanging. I would like to see the protagonist actually speak out to support the Beast which would be a strong gesture and character moment rather than being forced to gain trust when the story demands them to. Without spoiling the last act, the real Beast needs help and the protagonist decides to do it herself instead of calling the appropriate government services which feels dangerous and questionable despite being a character development moment. Although I have more issues with some minor plot points, the overall plot seems just to accommodate its key emotional moments rather than a coherent and meaningful one.

The next point is how uninteresting the characters. I barely know their values and interests specially the Beast who is the focus of the later half of the film. The character dialogue as well is not intriguing specially theatrical from the police leader. I think the film can replace the romance plots and unveiling plot device with more meaningful character interactions and dialogue subtext. What saddens me is that I do not feel attached to any character in the film even the underwhelming protagonist.

Concerning my main point of interest. The film places a special emphasis on unveiling or revealing the identity of a virtual world user. In this virtual world, the avatar is directly generated from the user's body signature or biometrics so that each one is unique and corresponds to a unique and identifiable user which also implies no alternative accounts are possible. So what is the justice served by unveiling a user? While users already reveal their identity when communicating outside the virtual world, a user's identity is private information and disclosing it forcibly or without consent is an attack on their privacy and safety. I do not know if the film realizes the main form of virtual justice is doxing. What bothers me is that banning a user would be a more practical and ethical solution when dealing with bad actors in online communities.

The police force in this virtual world is known as the Justices but are not formally governed by the world's administrators. In fact, the world may not have any administrators or ruling body but rather a lawless and independent world where justice may be only an emerging social need. If the Justices are a community group and administrators are non-existent, how did the Justices get the ability to unveil other users that are administrative capabilities? Ignoring the fact that unveiling has commercial sponsors, would there not be more support or utility groups such as builders, merchants, cosmetic designers and so on? The focus on the police force raises so many questions about the world and makes the world feel more flat without other representative groups. Perhaps if they made the martial arts users as bounty hunters instead would make for a more colorful task force without raising issues.

My last issue is the virtual world itself. Ignoring the possible privacy violations of harnessing user biometric data, the user having only one identity is a major ethical and economic concern. The virtual world was supposed to give users another identity that should be ideally equal or fair across users; however, the protagonist gets an avatar that is endowed with beauty and voice which is apparently a rare trait since nobody can contest her angelic music. In a way, this new world replicates the same inequalities of class and privilege by merely giving beyond cosmetic changes. When Bell became popular, the best friend acknowledges the profits from singing but sends them to charity instead to avoid changing the status quo; however, the point stands that the protagonist is a rich and privileged celebrity. Some skills and traits naturally carryover like charisma, intellect or combat prowess but giving different advantages because of genetic or environmental differences is a balance issue in gaming terms. Considering its Disney reference, the Disney protagonist was beautiful and well-read but an outcast. Maybe Bell could still sing but be a minor idol instead to avoid this inequality issue.

Regarding the lack of expression and freedom with this avatar generation. What happens if the person does not like their appearance? It could be argued that it removes physical beauty standards by leaving it out the user but not having at least some options can be psychologically or emotionally detrimental specially the body conscious. Not allowing multiple accounts also restricts a user from exploring different identities or protect their anonymity. I understand that a unique identity prevents spam or abuse; however, this virtual world has no safeguards in the first place, so what is the point of this loss of privacy and creativity? I wish the film just allow users to randomly generate their avatars as many times and some ability to check a user's public profile to sweep this issue away.

While I do have other issues with the virtual world, I raised some possible solutions while maintaining the technological and abstract fantasy of it; however, I really think all this is in service of the high emotional moment where the protagonist is unveiled and sings which is the crux of my problems. I think the film is going for a technological optimism specially how it grants the protagonist the ability to sing again and perhaps strength to the abused, but how everything is constructed seems to go against that which is a shame. The film can still be enjoyable, but I would just rewatch Summer Wars again for a better story, characters and visual experience.