Very few filmmakers have successfully utilized the advanced 3D technology that is now available and that seems ubiquitous in theaters around the country. Martin Scorsese, the iconic director of films such as Taxi Driver and The Departed, has joined the ranks of legendary filmmakers like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg who have attempted to use 3D not just for spectacle, but to enhance how the audience experiences the movie. With Hugo, Scorsese constructs a magical world whose hyper-reality is a wonderful testament to how effective 3D filmmaking can be when used properly.
Based on the children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Hugo tells the story of a young orphan in 1930s France who lives within the walls of massive train station. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) spends his time thieving and fixing the station’s massive clocks with the utmost precision. We learn that his father (Jude Law) was once a great inventor and tinkerer who taught Hugo everything he knew. After he died, Hugo was left with only the mysterious automaton his father rescued from a museum attic. As a tribute to his father, Hugo is determined to fix the machine as a way to keep his father’s memory alive.
Hugo’s trouble begins when he is caught stealing from a trinket shop run by a reclusive and crabby old man named George (Ben Kingsley). When he discovers that Hugo has a natural talent for fixing broken toys and inventing, George allows him to help out in his shop. Here Hugo also meets George’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) who takes an immediate liking to him. The two youngsters begin seeking adventures and discover that George is actually George Melies, one of the most prolific filmmakers in early cinema. They also realize he is intimately connected to the automaton Hugo so desperately wants to make work.
George Melies is still considered one of the fathers of cinema whose work demonstrated the limitless possibilities of film. His most famous work is A Trip to the Moon which is regularly shown in film schools to this day. Scorsese, one of the most active and vocal supporters of film preservation, shows his true love for cinema through the mini-history lesson he gives the audience. Melies, who began as a stage magician, marveled at all of the “tricks” he could pull on the audience. This propelled him to make hundreds of films, many of which surely influenced the young Scorsese.
Scorsese wisely shot Hugo using 3D cameras as opposed to retro-fitting the film with 3D enhancement in post-production. The result is like watching a moving pop-up book where the viewer (or reader) feels as though they are able to walk within the images. Scorsese places the audience in the story because for early audiences who were watching moving pictures for the first time, the images on screen were perceived as reality.
Newcomer Butterfield is tolerably entertaining as Hugo, though he is constantly being overshadowed by Moretz and Kingsley, both of whom give incredibly honest and emotional performances. Sacha Baron Cohen appears as the Station Inspector, which is merely an unnecessary complication in the story. As always, though, Baron Cohen is brilliant and hilarious, contributing great physical comedy to an otherwise sober production.
Visually the film is a work of art. The cinematography is astounding and Scorsese does a magnificent job contrasting the shiny, ostentatious world of the train station terminal with the cold, mechanical environment Hugo inhabits in the station’s walls. Fans of film history will immediately see a clear tribute to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in this dichotomy.
Though it is being marketed as a children’s movie, Hugo is really a labor of love from one of the greatest living directors to those who truly love cinema.
This film is rated PG and runs 127 minutes.