Year of Release: 2011
Date Viewed: November 16th, 2011
MPAA Rating: PG
Martin Scorsese is my new hero. In a recent interview conducted by The Guardian, he replied to a question on why his newest film, Hugo, was shot in 3D.
"I've always liked 3D. I mean, we're sitting here in 3D. We are in 3D. We see in 3D. So why not?"
The latest incarnation of the three-dimensional picture era has been met with divisive reactions and controversy. Supporters are drawn in by the illusion of being closer to the onscreen images. And in some cases, they're a part of it. Critics find the format too distracting and have dismissed it as nothing more than a passing fad that scams the consumer into paying extra money. I belong in the former group although my opponents often have valid points about the format's flaws. But one of the few things that the arguers tend to agree upon is that the final result holds better quality when the setup or conversion process is in the hands of someone who possesses a genuine interest for 3D possibilities. So far, the titles for biggest triumphs probably belong to James Cameron's Avatar and Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol. But while those two individuals are better credited for technical breakthroughs than anything else, the entrance of Martin Scorsese into the foray should turn some heads because of his wider universal respect. It's amazing how a man like Scorsese who has seen and done it all in his respective profession can find a way to reinvent himself through his very first 3D effort and still live up to his already storied reputation. If you've been anticipating the next great 3D experience that's worth paying money for, the wait is over.
Adapted from Brian Selznick's children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the title character (played by Asa Butterfield) is a young orphan who lives inside the walls and other obscure interior of a train station in 1930s Paris. Hugo has the gift of fixing machines; a trait inherited from his father (Jude Law) who had died under mysterious circumstances. The last project his father had been working on was a strange-looking automaton armed with a calligraphy pen. By pilfering parts from a nearby merchant, Hugo gets closer and closer at repairing it back to working condition. It's the only remaining hope in understanding his past and destiny. There's a sentimental side to that mission too. Hugo cannot bare to see broken machines and at one moment he compares them to depressed human beings. Machines are broken once they cannot perform their intended purpose. People feel broken inside when they lose sight of their own purpose.
Hugo's source for mechanical parts is a toy salesman named Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley). After catching the boy red-handed, George takes possession of a notebook that details the construction plan for the automaton and burns it to dust. Or so we are led to believe. Georges' daughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) takes a special interest in Hugo and secretly informs him that the notebook had not really been destroyed. Her father has ulterior motives behind keeping the item in captivity beyond petty revenge. Upon learning this, Hugo confronts the merchant again. He accepts a bargain where the deal is to perform labor work for Georges until enough wages have been earned to pay for the stolen items. In the meantime, Hugo and Isabelle's friendship blossoms thanks to their mutual interest in motion pictures. The puzzle pieces that connect all the characters with the automaton begin to fall into place but it could all be for nothing if the clumsy station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) succeeds in turning Hugo over to the city orphanage.
Until now, only James Cameron's Avatar has displayed live-action 3D visuals as crisp as what's offered here. It's not perfect; Some action sequences have the dreaded blur that induce migraines to the easily susceptible. And there's an awkward extreme close-up shot of the station inspector. But there's success where it counts most. The majestic aura of a clock tower's inner workings, the gorgeous view of the evening Paris skyline and the claustrophobic effect that children feel when surrounded by adults. The stationary wide views of Paris are my personal favorites. It's like looking at a work of art but with mobile people. Scorsese is eager to show off his new skills very early in the picture. There's a long breathtaking shot that moves from the exterior to the interior of the train station (the film's primary setting) before finishing at Hugo's favorite secret vantage point for observing the station's occupants. 3D is used as a tool, not as the main attraction. Hugo's climatic and daring escape by dangling from the hands of a clock (imitating Harold Lloyd's famous stunt in Safety Last) is exciting enough because of what's at stake in the plot. But how about the addition of a backdrop that's so incredible to look at that it might initiate some real vertigo?
A more substance-oriented viewer might say "That's nice and all. But how does the narrative match up to the movie's look?" The answer is pretty darn well. This is not an experimental film. So expect to see the same level of care and attention that's given to the most prestigious projects that are submitted for Academy consideration. I doubt this movie will contend for many awards outside of outstanding visual effects. But that's more to do with its predictable nature than for any straight-up faults.
The film's marketing isn't completely honest. Isabelle quips out of context "It's Neverland and Oz and Treasure Island all wrapped up into one." Eh, not quite. It's more like The Gold Bug, Oliver Twist and the pages of a film history book. That last ingredient is a terrific surprise and a delight to watch. A major character is revealed to have been one of cinema's earliest and most prolific directors before the dynamics of the business saw too many changes. This part had been inspired by a real life French director whose story ends a little less happily than how it's depicted in this picture. Some of this person's most famous films are recreated (in vintage 2D) with flattering montages. Other notable early films such as The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station are paid homage to. The urban legend about the audiences in 1895 screaming and ducking for cover as the train moves toward the screen is filmed in appropriately humorous fashion. If that's all it took to terrify them, imagine their reaction to modern-day 3D.
Kids will enjoy Hugo because of the young characters' antics of finding and escaping trouble. Teens will be too awestruck by the technical achievements to realize that they're the wrong target audience (unless they're college freshmen studying film). But it's adults that will be rewarded with the most enjoyment from the film's breezy two-hour running time because the characters' struggle to find life's perfect philosophy will have the strongest connection to them. In one of the most dramatic scenes, a somber Georges Melies confides to his family how he ended up believing that happy endings only happen in the movies. The one I'm currently writing about reminds us why that statement is always moot because nobody's story is ever finished as long as the person is still breathing.