**** (out of 5)
November 23, 2011
Asa Butterfield as HUGO CABRET
Ben Kingsley as GEORGES MÉLIÈS
Chlöe Grace Moretz as ISABELLE
Sacha Baron Cohen as STATION INSPECTOR
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
BY KEVIN CARR
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“Hugo” is an enigma of a film. It’s a beautiful enigma, but it is a mystery nonetheless. On the surface, it is a beautifully-shot, rich story of a boy uncovering a secret. But there’s a lot of depth to the film, both emotionally and visually. Still, when all the stunning visuals are stripped away, you’re left with a rather simple story of a boy connecting with a different generation.
The fact that the story is, at its heart, supremely simple is not a bad thing. It’s just uncommon. I’m not talking about a movie fill with glitz and explosions but without much of a plot. This isn’t “Transformers” for the arthouse crowd. Rather, “Hugo” is a movie that transcends its own story to tap into the emotion of its audience and ignite their passions, whatever they may be.
Based on the Caldecott-winning book, “Hugo” tells the story of young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a poor orphan who lives in the clockworks of the Paris train station in the 1930s. Abandoned by his drunk uncle after the untimely death of his father, Hugo spends his days stealing from the shopkeepers for food and evading the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). One day, Hugo is caught by the depressed toy store owner (Ben Kingsley), who confiscates a notebook that belonged to Hugo’s dead father. As Hugo tries to get the book back, he uncovers a secret of the toy store owner, which is revealed by a fascinating mechanical man that Hugo has been rebuilding.
Much has been made about this film because it is legendary director Martin Scorsese’s first use of 3D technology. And in the hands of one of American cinema’s greatest masters, the 3D is quite simply breathtaking. The rest of the world should take notice of what Scorsese does with the camera, drawing the audience into the film and layering the shots with a full three dimensions. Scorsese shows up his colleagues with how well he uses the newly acquired depth, and other directors need to take on the challenge.
He doesn’t just slap on a post-conversion process to sell tickets at a higher price. Instead, he uses it to immerse the audience in the film. The level of artistry here is equivalent to George Lucas revolutionizing the use of sound effect in the “Star Wars” films and James Cameron pioneering visual effects with “Terminator 2: Judgement Day,” or even more classic examples like D.W. Griffith introducing storytelling techniques in “Birth of a Nation” or Orson Welles revolutionizing shot composition with “Citizen Kane.”
Beyond the their dimension, Scorsese paints a gorgeous picture with “Hugo.” The set design and overall look of the film is inviting and warm while tapping into the cold of the season and sadness of regret. It’s a movie that unfolds a picturesque world resembling a beautiful picture book about what Paris in the 30s looks like in our minds rather than how it existed in reality.
But “Hugo” isn’t just a movie with striking visuals and beautiful effects. It’s also a movie that taps into as much emotional depth as it shows visual depth. It’s a story of lost time and regret, but that’s only how it will appear to the adults watching the picture. We see the toy store owner’s sadness and regret for his lost past, and that tugs at the hearts of any adult in the audience who remembers his or her missed opportunities.
But as a children’s movie, “Hugo” shows hope and redemption from the perspective of the title character. He’s young, with his whole life ahead of him, and it is his attempts to do a greater good that demonstrates that memories, while fleeting, are important to happiness.
“Hugo” is a slow burn and not a non-stop thrill ride. It has its sweeping scenes and a few moments of action, but it’s not your typical holiday children’s film. The younger members of the audience might lose interest, especially with the running time of 127 minutes. However, there’s plenty to enjoy and engage the children of the audience that aren’t addicted to short-attention span television.
There’s already debates shaking up as to whether “Hugo” is a masterpiece or just a movie with pretty pictures and a lagging storyline. And while the latter definitely is a point to be made, I fall on the opinion of the former. Under the hand of a lesser director, “Hugo” might have been a plodding bore, but with Scorsese’s brilliant use of the old and new tools of the medium, it’s a gorgeous, brilliant film with plenty of layers to explore.