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It feels like the buzzword-heavy discussions about the future of the internet we’re having today — specifically about the so-called metaverse — are just now catching up to what books, film and television have been exploring for years. For all the heady and ethical questions that come with that territory, writer and director Mamoru Hosoda is happy to use the metaverse more as a vehicle for emotional coming-of-age tales than any Black Mirror-style warning for society. And honestly, it’s refreshing.

Hosoda’s work has explored virtual worlds since he directed Digimon Adventure in 1999, and he brought his own unique online world called OZ to 2009’s Summer Wars. And while these digital realms presents threats, they also allow young people to accomplish incredible things — like befriending powerful monsters or thwarting destructive artificial intelligences. And that latter theme continues with Belle, which gets its theatrical release this week. 

The new film follows a shy rural high school student named Suzu (singer Kaho Nakamura in the original; newcomer Kylie McNeill in the dub), whose online avatar Belle becomes the biggest pop star in a virtual reality world called U. It was a total accident of course — Suzu had been struggling to sing until she created her pink-haired avatar. But U unlocks its users' hidden strengths, and not only is Suzu able to sing again for the first time in years, she's an overnight sensation. Everyone wants to figure out who Belle — her name a play on how Suzu means “bell,” later upgraded by fans to the French word for “beauty” — really is. Suzu’s friend Hiro assists the rise to fame, relishing the opportunity to make a “country bumpkin” a star.

Belle’s true identity isn’t the only mystery dominating U. Beauty meets her Beast when a user known only as Dragon crashes a Belle concert, and Suzu and Hiro try to figure out just who he is. The whole time, Belle navigates high school stuff: She struggles with her self-esteem, romantic misunderstandings and a strained relationship with her father. The plot begins to falter a bit once the Dragon’s identity is uncovered, but there’s still some good race-against-time suspense, and Suzu’s emotional arc is ultimately what carries the story forward.

The two worlds of Belle also feature different art styles, each with its own spectacular visuals. The background art in this film is particularly stunning, from painting-like landscapes of mountain ridges and river walks of Suzu’s quiet town to the wondrous surreal landscapes in U. Scenes within U incorporate some 3D animation and bold character designs. There are humans like Belle, beasts like Dragon, animals and sprites and everything in between, all colorful and vibrant. Sometimes the characters here feel stilted or robotic with the 3D modeling, but Belle still manages to wring a lot of emotion out of those characters. In contrast, real-world scenes use traditional 2D characters, and while the art is simpler, the characters are expressive.

Belle's concert scenes are also impressive. The film uses empty space for beautifully animated light shows and sometimes fills in the void with impressive particle art — the diverse array of avatars becoming points of light during concerts or merging into fluid collages. And there are some appropriately epic spectacles, including the film’s opening scene of Belle performing atop a blue whale covered in speakers, her outfit exploding into flowers and colors. Cartoon Salon (Wolfwalkers) and Hosoda’s Studio Chizu (Mirai) brought their A-game to the movie, and the music and animation match well, especially in the film's big final number.

While there are plenty of Beauty and the Beast references, including a waltz scene, it’s not really a love story. Or at least not a tale about romantic love. Kindness is really what’s at the heart of the film, and even as futuristic as U is, the familiar snide cruelty of the modern internet era abounds. We first see that after Suzu’s mother dies saving a child from a river, a decision criticized by online posters. Similarly, when Belle first emerges into U, singing her heart out all carefree and overjoyed, people offer unsolicited comments about her looks and voice.

But that’s not all there is to the internet. U unlocks its users’ hidden strengths, and so it also offers Suzu a way to help people. In a way, the film poses a question that doesn’t seem to be asked earnestly these days: What if the internet can help us be the best versions of ourselves? The answer isn’t a simple yes — not when secrecy is involved, not without support, not without good deeds in the real world. 

And that’s why, even though the nuts and bolts of U are never explained, Hosoda may understand the internet better than most. The so-called metaverse may not look like U — it may not even involve virtual reality — but our online personas and offline selves are overlapping more and more, our communities and forms of entertainment become more digitized.

But all that doesn’t mean we give up on reality, and it certainly doesn’t mean we give up on our decency. The film does posit that even when cruelty overwhelms us, online or off, kindness can still uplift.

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