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Hugo Is Sophisticated Family Entertainment From A Master

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by John Logan based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Paramount, 2011

A lot of times I dream of a director like Scorsese taking on a particular genre of film and seeing his own unique spin on it.  With Hugo, Scorsese takes a technology, 3D, that is now being downgraded by moviegoers because of the lack of imagination in its use, and looks to make it special.  3D has been looking for an honest use of it since James Cameron gave us Avatar, a movie I didn’t particularly like but kick-started the 3D craze because so many people wanted to watch it in that format.  Since then, 3D has been used to get that extra few bucks out of consumers and in most cases consumers are wondering what enhancements 3D actually makes to the experience.

Hugo is a movie I suspect Scorsese has always wanted to direct.  He’s always talked about movies being our dreams.  If you ever listen to the guy talk about movies and how he grew up watching them, he’s always been a kid about them even though the subject matter he covers is often not very kid-friendly.

Hugo, set in 1930s Paris, concerns our title character (Asa Butterfield), who loses his father (Jude Law) in a fire, leaving him with his drunk clock-winding uncle (Ray Winstone).  When his uncle goes missing, Hugo resorts to the life of an orphan thief, but continues to wind that clock lest anyone get suspicious and want to take him to an orphanage, like the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, who’s great).  Hugo has the great ability to fix mechanical devices, and one that he and his father were working on before his death was an automaton, only able to come to life once they find a key, which seems nearly impossible.  Then Hugo meets Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her papa, Georges (Ben Kingsley), and the connection between the automaton and that family drives the plot forward.

I won’t tell you the other parts of the plot, because surprise and discovery is of the essence.  The movie isn’t a simple, “Let’s find the key, and then start the automaton” kind of plot.  In fact, it’s only the beginning of a Scorsese love-fest of cinema history, one that is enlightening and enthralling.  Much like Hugo’s competitor this Thanksgiving, The Muppets, both films have a look into the past to the old style of filmmaking that is getting lost in all the huge special effects extravaganzas.  It’s kind of funny mentioning that, since Hugo is available in 3D, but it’s a spectacular use of it.

Scorsese definitely makes the best use of it here.  3D has always been best used when looking at depth, not “things flying out at the screen at you.”  We’ve seen good 3D used for animated films like Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, but not really anything live-action that was worth it.  Scorsese makes the 3D here come alive with detail, and a really stunning shot in the last minutes of the film.  This is how you do 3D, no doubt, and it may very well be a better experience than the 2D.  It’s beautifully shot by the incomparable Robert Richardson.

This is family entertainment that is sorely lacking most of the time with all those quickie book-of-the-week adaptations that we see.  This is family entertainment with imagination and style, from a man who has made some of the best films in our generation, exposing kids to a kind of storytelling they are too young to realize is great, but their subconscious tells them they need.  It might not break box office records, but it certainly has a place along the best of stories for all ages.

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