Just when moviegoers were ready to give up on the 3D revival as a gimmick used primarily to justify higher ticket prices, master director Martin Scorsese comes along with “Hugo” to show how it should be done.
His brilliant family film employs 3D imaginatively, evocatively and judiciously, using it to add depth, both literal and metaphorical, enriching the story that he is telling.
“Hugo,” based on “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” a Caldecott Medal-winning, 2007 children’s novel by Brian Selznick, is in many ways a love letter to the movies and film preservation, the latter a long-standing cause advocated by Scorsese.
Although it chronicles the adventures of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphaned boy who lives in a Paris train station in the 1930s, the film is really about the power of movies to transform lives, allow escape, and encompass our dreams.
Hugo is the son of a clock and machine repairman (Jude Law), who died, but not before imparting his love of both movies and all things mechanical to his son. Hugo now lives deep in the upper reaches of a Paris train station, where he secretly keeps its clocks running, attempts in his spare time to fix a metal, life-like looking automaton his father once rescued from a museum, and tries to avoid the clutches of the station’s overzealous police inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, in a highly amusing turn).
He is befriended by Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a bookworm who longs for the sort of mystery and adventure in real life that she encounters in the pages of books. Hugo also begins apprenticing for her guardian (Ben Kingsley), an embittered old toy seller and repairman who has a small shop in the station.
The identity of this old man and his link to Hugo’s father are at the heart of the story. Like any great children’s tale, there are adult secrets to be learned, a mysterious key that will literally unlock the automaton as well as the identities of and connections between various characters, and perilous adventures aplenty.
Along the way, Scorsese pays tribute to trailblazing filmmakers and performers such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and, above all–and without giving away too much–French silent film pioneer Georges Mélies (1902’s “A Trip to the Moon”).
While “Hugo” works splendidly as family fare, offering an involving tale, thrills (the police inspector’s fearsome dog racing straight at you via 3D) and humor, it is ardent cinephiles who will want to see the movie repeatedly as there are likely new film references, homages and allusions to be gleaned from every viewing.
Here’s just one: Look for Scorsese himself in a cameo playing, appropriately, a photographer in the early 1900s who’s taking a portrait of a famous filmmaker. In casting himself as both a historian and an artist, Scorsese perfectly sums up the duality of the vision that he brings to such vivid life in “Hugo.”