With “Hugo”, the masterful Martin Scorsese trades his usual gritty crime dramas for a sweeping epic of another sort – a fictionalized historical account of one of cinema’s most underrated pioneers based on Brian Selznick’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” Shot in vibrant 3D, “Hugo” is a curious mix of old and new; a quirky fairytale that highlights the tension between tradition and innovation, but nevertheless reminds us of the enduring magic of the movies.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young, wide-eyed orphan living in the walls of a bustling train station in 1930s Paris. Aside from his self-appointed duty of maintaining the station’s many clocks, Hugo keeps a ghost-like presence; rather than making friends, he prefers to peer down on the colorful characters that frequent his home, which include an injured war veteran turned police inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), Lisette (Emily Mortimer), the sweet-natured flower girl, and Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the enigmatic and cantankerous toy shop owner. Relying mostly on parts stolen from the latter, Hugo devotes his free time to repairing a delicate automaton, the sole link he has to his late father (Jude Law).
When Georges’ apprehends the vagabond one fateful day, it leads to an unlikely friendship between Hugo and the elder’s bookish yet spunky goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz). Together the two youths embark on an adventure to unlock the automaton’s secrets, and along the way discover hidden relics from Georges’ colorful past as an early champion of narrative film and special effects. With the help of an eminent film scholar, Hugo and Isabelle help restore both Georges’ reputation and his love for a livelihood once lost.
Bolstered by a strong cast, rich art direction and a sentimental score by Howard Shore, there is no doubt that “Hugo” is a formidable addition to the director’s already impressive resume. But while Scorsese’s infectious passion for cinema shines through in each frame, his choice of medium opens up a whole new dialogue. Since its inception, the 3D movie has largely been a gimmick intended to lure bigger audiences to the theaters, but now that heavyweights like Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann (currently hard at work on his 3D adaptation of “The Great Gatsby”) have jumped onboard, the industry seems poised for a major shift. Big studio action/adventure flicks aside, the question on the table is: live-action 3D, yea or nay?
As stunning as “Hugo” is, there are few instances in its two-hour-plus run that would not have been just as equally effective in two dimensions. (Certain scenes, in fact, seem to consciously amplify the imagery in order to compensate for moments of weak writing.) Where the technology serves the story best is the manner in which it breathes new life into the archival footage of the real Georges Méliès’ work, but alas, this comes quite late and too fleetingly in the story.
For film buffs familiar with Méliès, “Hugo” is a winning tribute to the origins of cinema, and for those capable of fending off the nausea often intrinsic to the 3D format, it reinforces the joys of suspending disbelief to let the story take hold.