Since the massive success of James Cameron’s Avatar, 3D has become a key element of today’s cinema, despite the mixed reactions. From the “retrofitted” conversions to the actual shooting of the format, 3D is for the most part, a gimmick. Now, some of cinema’s greatest talents are having a crack at the format, such as the recent Spielberg-directed Tintin and Francis Ford Coppola’s upcoming Gothic horror Twixt. Whilst children will want to see the singing and dancing penguins of Happy Feet Two, kids should take notice of Martin Scorsese’s first 3D family feature which is about the birth of cinema.
In 1930’s Paris, the young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) secretly lives in the city’s subway station after the death of his father (Jude Law). Whilst avoiding the bumbling station inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo encounters Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who strangely has a heart-shaped key that fits into his broken automaton. The two kids begin to investigate the mystery of the mechanical contraption which leads to the mysterious past of Isabelle’s godfather Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley).
Although The Aviator (whose screenwriter John Logan adapted Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret of which this is based) was about a filmmaker who became an aviator, this is Scorsese’s first about the making of films, specifically the early pioneering years involving the works of Georges Melies. If you have seen any of the interviews featuring the Goodfellas director, you’ll know of his expertise towards the medium and he can express his knowledge for hours and hours. In the case of Hugo, there are scenes that discusses the history of cinema and what magic it could bring, but some might see this as a lecture and others will see this as a love letter to the medium.
However, the real triumph of Hugo comes from its appearance as a fable and this is what will appeal to the youngsters. Most of the action takes place in the subway station which is its own world where the adult passengers are constantly moving in every direction and children are caught by the station inspector and his canine. Hiding within the interiors of the station’s clocks is little Cabret whose sole purpose is to fix things, mostly clocks, whilst witnessing the numerous interactions of the store owners who all wish for love. The film is at best in its first half as we just see Hugo travelling through the giant gears and taking notice of a number of lovely subplots, including Inspector Gustav’s crush on Emily Mortimer’s flower girl.
Set mostly in the station at the time of winter, cinematographer Robert Richardson has made a star out of the look of the film as Paris in the snowy nights has never looked so beautifully picturesque. As a fan of the classic 3D movies such as Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, Scorsese has a clear understanding of the format and in the way he shoots it, there is not a single shot that looks phony or even dimmed which is the usual problem of 3D. Influenced by the works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger like The Red Shoes, colour plays a big part as Scorsese recreates the fantastic images of Melies’ films, the most notable being A Trip to the Moon.
Perhaps last seen in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Asa Butterfield in the titular role is one of the big highlights as a lot of his performance is told through his big blue eyes, as well as having such an enchanting presence. While a lot of the adults see him as a child but Hugo has a clear understanding of the world as he compares people like machines that can be fixed, which makes perfect sense and Butterfield achieves this with such honesty.
The casting of Butterfield led to an ensemble of mostly British actors including Christopher Lee as the humble bookseller to Ray Winstone as Hugo’s drunken uncle, and despite the subplots are seen as glimpses, they do indeed support the loveliness of the story. Although being American, the always delightful Chloe Grace Moretz doesn’t go Dick Van Dyke in her British accent. In the role of Papa Georges, Sir Ben Kingsley is wonderfully tragic as a man who started off as a magician-turned-filmmaker but then becomes a toyshop owner who crumbles down anytime his past is mentioned, but it’s the help of one little boy to save the day.
After forty-plus years of filmmaking, Martin Scorsese is still learning some new tricks and in the case of Hugo, he achieves at making a big family epic with the best convincing use of 3D since… ever.
DIRECTOR: MARTIN SCORSESE
SCREENWRITER: JOHN LOGAN
STARRING: ASA BUTTERFIELD, CHLOE GRACE MORETZ, BEN KINGSLEY, SACHA BARON COHEN, JUDE LAW, CHRISTOPHER LEE, RAY WINSTONE, EMILY MORTIMER
RUNTIME: 127 MINS
COUNTRY: USA, UK