When Suzu was just a little girl, her world was perfect. She had her loving mom, and like many young girls, that was all she needed. They’d play, draw, pretend, romp and cuddle. Mom helped Suzu gain a love for music and taught her the joys of a stirred imagination.
One day, though, during a bad storm, Suzu’s mom swam out into the raging waters of the local river to help another young girl, stranded and terrified. And she didn’t come back.
It was an incredibly brave thing for Suzu’s mom to do. But all these years later, Suzu still doesn’t understand why her mother did what she did. That agonizing abandonment has left Suzu—even now as a teen—a tearful mess most of the time. She has nothing to love. She has no voice. She’s a shell of what she was or who she could have been.
But something promises to help with all that. It’s called “U,” a virtual reality online cosmos that sports more than 5 billion users. U is promoted as another reality—a place for a new you and a fresh beginning. With just a simple biometric scan, U promises to give its users a personalized avatar that’s crafted from their unique strength; the core of who they are.
Suzu plugs the VR device into her ear and meets her avatar: Belle—a slender, elegant beauty with pink hair. And when she steps into Belle’s metaverse world and opens her mouth, Suzu is shocked to find that this new version of herself can sing. And she sings beautifully. Belle sings an honest, earnest song of loss and grief, a song that touches a chord with many others online.
One follower grows to ten, to a thousand, to millions. And Suzu isn’t sure what to do with this kind of unsought-after fame. It does, however, feel like a new beginning.
But in a swirling virtual reality of 5 billion people, there are those that see the beautiful and those who look for the ugly, those who cheer and those who jeer.
The U can be a hard place for those who’d rather hide away from their pain.
It’s not such a perfect world.
Suzu does find a way to express some of her pent-up anguish in U. And with the help of her techy friend Hiro, she even draws positive attention from others.
But it’s only when she meets an angry, roaring online character named Dragon—a beasty person covered in tattoo-like bruises who constantly lashes out at the virtual world that hates him—that she recognizes a kindred soul. She sees Dragon’s pain. She understands his struggles. And she reaches out to help this roaring beast, even though he rejects her kindness.
With time, Suzu and the wounded Dragon are drawn to each other. It’s not a romantic union, but a sense of shared protection and healing. We see the suffering that Dragon’s real-world counterpoint endures. And Suzu steps up to protect him, beginning a very real process of healing for both of them. With her action, Suzu comes to understand why her mother, long ago, stepped up to help when no one else would.
Friends and family members here are consistent—always reaching out, always protective (in particular one childhood friend who protects Suzu at every turn). And eventually, Suzu is able to reach back and grow into being a new and healthier version of herself.
The movie shows the possible positives of an internet metaverse, along with its troll-like side. But Belle definitively demonstrates that all lasting changes are made in the real world.
There’s nothing overtly spiritual in this tale. But at one point, as Belle, Suzu makes a selfless online choice. She reveals her true self and it impacts a massive online community that wants to hide behind the U’s anonymity, but collectively yearns for an honest human connection. Director Mamoru Hosoda is able to show us a glowing spiritual tie that unites these millions of online seekers. It’s a moving symbolic moment.
Then later in the film, Suzu pauses and looks thoughtfully skyward toward a cloud with the sun peeking out behind. This too could be seen as a spiritual recognition of the changes happening in the young girl’s life.
A small group of women practice a “Hallelujah” Christmas song.
There’s definitely an attraction/connection between Suzu and a teen she’s known since childhood named Shinobu. He’s been protective of her since she lost her mother at 6. By the end of the film, their friendship has grown and is ready to enter a new stage, though viewers don’t see any real physical contact between the two. Another male and female express their shared crush on each other.
A small group of online young women post a video if themselves lounging around in their underwear. One member of the group wiggles her backside. Some middle-aged women talk of being attracted to “bad boys” when they were young.
When we first see Dragon in the U metaverse, he’s being chased by a large group of “justices,” online individuals who take it upon themselves to maintain order in U. These self-appointed officers tend to be pretty violent. (We see smashing, bashing virtual battles.) Dragon, however, is doubly so. He has increased endurance and strength and lashes out repeatedly at foes, quickly hitting and slashing his pursuers into frozen submission. The attacks are quick and peppered with flashes of light and broken bits of surrounding scenery.
Later a group of justices find Dragon’s hidden castle. They raid it, rampage through and burn it—hurting the castle’s small AI protectors in the process.
We find out that Dragon’s increased online strength can be attributed to things he’s had to endure in real life. Some people believe this mysterious beast is either an angry, attention-seeking woman, a raging young tattooed artist or a sports star covered in scars from youthful surgeries (something this real-world person shows us by pulling off his shirt).
[Spoiler Warning] We eventually learn that Dragon is actually a 14-year-old boy who’s been abused by his father. We only see emotional abuse from his screaming father onscreen, but the blossoming bruises on Dragon’s online persona imply very physical abuse in the real world, too.
Suzu meets up with the real-world Dragon counterpart and his younger brother, and she shields the boys from their angry father. In the course of the tussle, Suzu is grabbed and her face is scratched and she starts to bleed. But she stands her ground, protecting the kids ‘til the raging man steps away. Her actions inspire the boy behind Dragon to seek out real-world help.
There are two or three exclamations of “d–mit” and some four uses of “h—.” There’s also a bit of name calling (“idiot” and “scumbag”) a reference to someone’s “butt” and a couple uses of “shut up.”
Years after her mother’s death, Suzu struggles to sing again and the emotional effort literally makes her vomit.
If the title Belle makes you think of a certain beloved Disney musical featuring a sweet-voiced young woman and a snarling animal man, well, there’s good reason for that. We see nods to that classic tale all throughout this film.
That said, Belle is far from a Japanese anime remake of Beauty and the Beast. Oscar-nominated director Mamoru Hosoda simply uses the kernel of that story idea as a springboard into a resplendently beautiful presentation that focuses on a young high school girl and the tricky and sometimes painful things that face wounded teens growing up in a true metaverse social media world.
With the skill of a master craftsman, the director escorts viewers through his characters’ struggles with grief, loss, anger and insecurity—even addressing issues of physical and emotional abuse by movie’s end. And he declares the intrinsic value of having loving support from family and friends, as well as the need for sacrificial personal bravery if we hope to be a part of healing in our broken world.
Probably most impressive, though, is Hosoda’s ability to craft his complex, two-sided reality—a “real” world rendered via classic hand-drawn animation, and a VR world crafted with broad and sparkling CG—while keeping the younger viewers in the crowd in mind.
That’s not to say this is a kids’ movie. It’s colorful but aimed at a bit older crowd (with angsty subject matter, some light language and some pointed emotional anguish). But for teens and up this is an easily recommended visual treat.
[Viewers need note however that the film is available in both English-dubbed and Japanese with English subtitles versions.]
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.