The Oscar-winning theme song for Disney's 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast describes its own story as a “tale as old as time.” It certainly is, yet director Mamoru Hosada (Mirai) finds a way to make it contemporary with Belle. This Japanese film, available in both dubbed and subtitled versions, melds the basic concept with a look at modern-day online technology to create a visually stunning, emotionally moving feature. Fans of sophisticated animation will want to pay close attention.

The gist is that there's a massive virtual world called “U.” Once people register, they're given an online identity that conforms to how they view themselves or who they would like to be. (The movie's one significant flaw is that more time isn't spent establishing the rules of this digital environment.) A shy, music-loving high school student named Suzu signs up. She's given the persona of “Belle,” a beautiful, confident singer with pink hair and an elegant manner. It takes no time at all for Belle's voice to skyrocket her to popularity – a feeling Suzu is completely uncomfortable with.

Her scheduled concert is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious beast and the band of vigilantes chasing him. Everyone in “U” starts trying to determine the beast's real identity. That includes Belle, who feels inexplicably drawn to his obvious suffering, especially after they come face-to-face for a second time. Helping to heal his pain requires Suzu to deal with her own past trauma, as well as to embrace her gifts rather than hiding them from the world.

Belle hits a lot of the familiar beats of the Beauty and the Beast story, but putting them in an online context gives them a fresh spin. The film dives into how the virtual world can either bring us together or make us feel more distant. In one respect, it's a place to hide, to be someone other than who you really are. In another, people who would never meet in real life are able to connect, sometimes quite meaningfully. The way the film resolves the scenario is enough to get you choked up, even if you're intimately familiar with the classic story that inspired it.

Eye-popping animation adds immeasurably to the impact. Scenes inside of “U” are incredibly detailed, suggesting an online world where literally billions of people interact. Avatars are flying everywhere. When Belle sings, the chaos fades into quiet reverence, leading to several really beautiful musical numbers. Mixing hand-drawn animation with CGI for more complex shots, Belle is a feast for the eyes. All of that color and detail makes it easier to become absorbed by the plot's fantasy elements.

Everything builds to a touching finale. You might expect the film to stay inside of “U” for it. Instead, Hosada pulls back into the real world. His emphasis is on showing how a meeting that begins online carries over to actual life. Such is the glory of Belle. It recognizes that virtual life may be shiny and alluring, but flesh-and-blood life is where you find genuine fulfillment. By the end, you don't want to be with Belle anymore, you want to be with Suzu. And being able to do so makes this imaginatively-conceived movie a heartwarming tale about the value of compassion.

out of four

Belle is rated PG for thematic content, violence, language and brief suggestive material. The running time is 2 hours and 1 minute.