When Suzu (voice of Kylie McNeill) loses her mother at a young age, she also loses the ability to sing, a talent her mother had encouraged.  The shy girl from a rural village is hardly noticed at school, but when her best friend Hiro (voice of Jessica DiCicco) gets her to log in to the online world of U, Suzu becomes immensely popular as a singing star known by her avatar of “Belle.”

Laura's Review: B+

Writer/director Mamoru Hosoda ("Mirai") updates the classic Beauty and the Beast tale for the social media/virtual reality age, using the fairy tale’s message of looking beyond outward appearances to deliver messages about bullying, abuse and plain old assumptions.  Hosoda’s packed a lot into his 121 minutes, including two charming teen romances and a wildly imaginative rendering of U.  (Note that we reviewed the subtitled version, so reference the Japanese voice actors here.  The film is also available in an English dubbed version.)

Suzu is quickly established as a compassionate teen, one of the few in her school who do not make fun of Kamishin (voice of Shota Sometani), an oddball trying to raise interest in a high school canoeing club.  She also admires pretty, popular girl Ruka Watanabe (voice of Tina Tamashiro) from afar, believing she is the romantic interest of her childhood friend Shinobu (voice of Ryo Narita).  And yet, Suzu lost her ability to sing because she cannot get over the fact that she lost her mother when her mother jumped into roiling water to save another little girl and drowned.

When Hiro introduces Suzu to U, Suzu mistakenly uses a photo of Ruka to create her avatar, but her biometrics are loaded in and her freckles appear on the beautiful apparition with the long, flowing pink hair.  As Belle, Suzu immediately finds her voice and her ethereal singing immediately gets noticed.  Later, Suzu notes she has two followers, one of them being Hiro, and shrugs, then is astonished when the numbers blow up, making Belle the most popular of U’s five billion users.  Then, on the day of a virtual U concert which draws 200 million users worldwide, Belle’s concert is interrupted by The Dragon (voice of Takeru Satoh), a creature the five justices who police U led by Justin (voice of Toshiyuki Morikawa) immediately attempt to stomp out, Justin having the power of unveiling an avatar’s true identity.  Suzu/Belle, on the other hand, is intrigued by the creature, wishing to learn why someone would create a character to be hated.

In addition to the aforementioned themes, Hosoda explores social phenomena like celebrity, doxing and general hazards of the online world.  Hiro may be Suzu’s best friend, but she becomes megalomaniacal about ‘her creation,’ attempting to guide Suzu to greater and greater online heights while becoming obsessed with uncovering The Dragon’s identity (there are several possibilities, all who achieve a level of fame, whether wanted or not).  The Dragon is, of course, a misunderstood creature who appeals to children for a reason to be revealed.  He lives in a Castle, rejecting all who try to enter except a gathering of small creatures of his own creation.  Back in the real world, Shinobu’s taking of Suzu’s hand becomes major online gossip while Kamishin awkwardly asks any girl who’s rooting for him if she has a crush on him (as it turns out, one does).

Real world anime is nicely done, water scenes particularly impressive, but the film really pops in U, which is rendered in such a way as to communicate both its vastness and its inorganic origins.  Creature avatars seem to have come from the mind of Hayao Miyazaki, as does the blue whale Belle rides as she sings.  A ballroom dance in The Dragon’s castle is unmistakably indebted to Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

In the end, Suzu makes peace with her mother’s sacrifice, recognizing it for what it was within her own actions.  “Belle” is a complex tale, well told.

Robin's Review: B-

GKIDS opens "Belle" in theaters on 1/14/22.