While I remain exhausted, bored, and increasingly angry and cynical over the unwieldy use of 3D in our movies nowadays, along comes Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”, a dazzling visual masterpiece that makes the best argument I have seen yet for the continued use of the medium in this “Everything In 3D” world we live in. With countless terrible examples of films that squander the technology or even worse, try and upgrade from conventional 2D to a post-conversion 3D, the novelty is dying rapidly. So leave it to the cineaste Scorsese to make this film – rooted in the beginnings of moviemaking, and yet telling its story with the most impressive of visual presentations. Acknowledging that I’m about to make a proclamation prone to ridicule and somewhat steeped in hyperbole, I came away from “Hugo” believing that this just might be the finest 3D work I have ever experienced.
And while “Avatar” fans gather their pitchforks and torches over that statement, “Hugo” is much more than simply a 127 minute visual adventure. There is a compelling, heartfelt, if not scattered story at its core, with two engaging and impressive young performances and some elegant supporting work from Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer, and yes – even Sacha Baron Cohen.
Adapted from the 2008 Caldecott Award winning children’s book by Brian Selznick, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, “Hugo” introduces us to its titular 12-year old character, played by Asa Butterfield. An orphaned boy, living in and amongst a Parisian train station, Hugo mostly flies underneath the radar of those who come to the station each and every day. The Station Inspector (Cohen) buzzes around surveying this and that, limited by an encumbering brace he wears on his left leg. The lovely Lisette (Mortimer) uses the station to sell fresh flowers for those arriving and departing. More pertinent to the main story, we also meet an older shopkeeper (Kingsley), who runs a mechanical toy shop and has observed Hugo pilfering milk and croissants from vendors. The man has also become convinced that Hugo is stealing items from his store and after catching him in the act, the shopkeeper and the boy become wary of one another. Other than by the shopkeeper, Hugo is largely unseen at the station as he deftly avoids the possibility of having to move into an orphanage while living in and around the labyrinthine pathways hidden behind the giant clockfaces that Hugo must ensure are running properly. The clocks running effectively provide shelter and a home, and keep him close to past memories he holds close to his heart.
Set in the early 1930s, we flashback briefly to learn how Hugo became an orphan. With no mother present, Hugo was tied to the hip of his father (Jude Law), who tragically passed away and Hugo ended up being taken in by his slovenly uncle (Ray Winstone). Banishing Hugo to the clock towers, he disappeared and has not been seen by the boy for a very long time. Hugo and his father worked tirelessly on rebuilding an automaton, a mechanical robotic man, and while great mystery and intrigue surrounds this automaton and its actual purpose, Hugo has concurrently struck up a growing friendship with the shopkeeper’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). A bookworm, Isabelle draws Hugo out from behind the comfort of the clock tower and introduces him to an elderly librarian (Christopher Lee). The adventures they share in a literary sense are later matched and one-upped when Hugo defies Isabelle’s godfather, and introduces her to the world of the cinema. There are specific reasons why Isabelle has never been allowed to see a movie, but once she sits in the theater she is transported into another world.
Scorsese and his trusted editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, dazzle us with an extraordinary opening sequence, seamlessly edited as if it is shot in one take, which navigates us through the train station and the clock world Hugo occupies. That scene alone, with a beautiful score from Howard Shore, and a flawless melding of visual effects and set design, is the finest 3D work I have ever seen on screen. Throughout the film, Scorsese has meticulously consumed himself with every nuance, and detail. “Hugo” deserves countless technical nominations from Oscar for its score, art direction, costumes, makeup, editing, and the breathtaking cinematography beautifully rendered by Oscar-winner and Scorsese cohort, Robert Richardson.
Martin Scorsese is out front on the push for archiving film history, preservation, and film restoration and has championed and spearheaded many causes to ensure that the origins of film are documented for a hopeful eternity. There is no bigger fan of the medium than Scorsese is and he is gushing with excitement and pride in how he frames, films, and presents “Hugo”. The screenplay by Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan nails down many memorable moments, but falls victim to inconsistency and Scorsese’s film does perhaps overstaying his welcome ultimately. Whether or not the film could trim 15-20 minutes becomes rather obvious when you see where the mysteries of “Hugo” take you, but there is no denying the artistry is breathtaking and Scorsese is as engaged and infused with as galvanizing an energy as we have ever seen.
In addition to the opening of the film, one of my favorite moments comes during the shopkeeper’s story, where we are rewarded with a quick history lesson in the earliest beginnings of cinema; a segment of sorts where you can almost see Scorsese smiling from ear to ear, perhaps even with a tear in his eye. The images of Georges Melies’ A Trip To The Moon, embedded in this review for point of reference, the legendary story of audience members screaming and rushing away from the screen when viewing the Lumiere Brothers’ classic 1895 short film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, and the iconic Dickson Experimental Sound Film, all are brought forward and modernized expertly and profoundly.
Scorsese is not solely focused on the visual however and draws out impressive work from his young actors Chloe Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield, she cementing her status as the finest young female actor in the business right now and Butterfield’s pooling blue eyes providing the right amount of pathos for his melancholic backstory. Cohen and Mortimer strike a nice chord of chemistry in their moments together, while those who are not fans of Cohen’s over-the-top wildman act should be pleasantly surprised by his reserved turn here. Ben Kingsley is quite good here as well and provides the emotional heft necessary to make the film work, in part, by the end.
Even when the mysteries are all answered in “Hugo”, we are still compelled to think about the journeys we take everytime we buy a ticket, grab that DVD, or watch a movie on television. Where Scorsese stakes “Hugo” is in the excitement of everything that presaged those options. I thought of my 12-year old daughter and how effortlessly she can pick up a Flipcam or utilize our laptop webcam and shoot, direct, and edit together these 5-10 minute mini-movies of hers with her friends. I also thought of this YouTube generation we are in and wondered what Scorsese and other film historians must think when pondering our “everything must be broadcast somewhere” mentality we find ourselves in. “Hugo” makes the argument that movies should be an event, they should be special, and they should mean something. Re-investigating why we are compelled to make films of any type, what images and stories we desire to tell, and analyzing the emotions that moving images bring out of us, makes “Hugo” something truly terrific.