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Hugo—movie review

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
November 23, 2011 7:42 AM
15 Comments
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Leave it to Martin Scorsese to use 3-D not as a gimmick, but as a means of drawing us into a unique and magical environment. Other films may boast of flashy special effects, but Scorsese has created a world of wonder—which is much more unusual—in his elaborate adaptation of Brian Selznick’s illustrated book The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

At first blush, the man who made Taxi Driver and Goodfellas might seem an unlikely choice for this endeavor, but the story of Hugo is tied to the earliest days of cinema, and that brings out the very best in Scorsese. John Logan’s screenplay captures the special qualities of his source material and expands upon it by painting a vibrant picture of the Paris train station where much of the action takes place, circa 1930.

Asa Butterfield is ideal as young Hugo, who is left to his own devices after his uncle’s untimely death; he’s right at home in the metallic maze of the train station’s catwalks, where he continues to wind the clocks as his uncle did. He has an abiding interest in all things mechanical, especially an automaton that was his uncle’s pride and joy. The wily, light-fingered Hugo comes to the attention of an irascible old man (Ben Kingsley) who sells toys in the train station arcade, and the boy becomes friendly with his granddaughter (Chloë Grace Moretz). It turns out that Grandpa Georges has a secret past, which I won’t divulge here (although you may have read about it elsewhere). In the unfolding of that story, the boy and the old man find a common bond.

The director’s approach to 3-D demands use of the overworked word “immersive.” Yet that is the only accurate way to describe the way we lose ourselves in this film, with its spinning gears, mechanisms, and pixie dust in the air. One remarkable—and deceptively simple—shot of the imperious station inspector (played with just the right touch of hauteur by Sacha Baron Cohen) elicited gasps of delight at the screening I attended, because it uses 3-D to help define the character in a cunning visual metaphor, and has fun with it to boot. When the time comes to recreate the early days of moviemaking in France, the film rises to Olympian heights.

Scorsese has said that he found inspiration in the works of René Clair and Jean Vigo, but the most direct connection for the railroad depot scenes is the work of Jacques Tati, in particular Playtime. Tati built an entire cityscape for that movie and choreographed every detail within the frame. Scorsese has done the same, filling the train station with colorful characters played by such expert performers as Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, and Emily Mortimer. (The imposing Christopher Lee plays a gentlemanly bookseller.) He has even appropriated Tati’s use of sound: people who are speaking casually, away from the camera, are heard in the distance, not “miked” like actors in the foreground.

As always, Scorsese works with a gifted team of collaborators, led by cinematographer Robert Richardson, visual effects supervisor Rob Legato, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, production designer Dante Ferretti, costume designer Sandy Powell, and composer Howard Shore. With Brian Selznick’s illustrations as their guide, they sought to animate and illuminate his story; with a 3-D monitor on the set, they could adjust every shot to make the best use of depth and foreground pieces.

I’m not crazy about the advertising for Hugo, but I am hopeful that good reviews and strong word-of-mouth will make it the success it has every right to be. This is a rare family-friendly film that offers sensory pleasures and plenty of food for thought. It might send some young people to Selznick’s book; in a perfect world, it would inspire viewers of all ages to seek out the magical films of Georges Méliès. At the very least it will show audiences what a great director can achieve when he is truly inspired by his material.

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15 Comments

  • maria g | February 11, 2013 6:16 PMReply

    I agree that is a beautiful film and a fascinating story but to me it has unnecesary dialogues and narrative in such a visual film, sadistic characters like the policeman, and some problems with the story. A film made for Scorsese child daughter not necessarily a great film nor a great family film. For film history lovers like Scorsese the movie part regarding the story background of the great George Meliés. I was immensly dissapointed it had everything to be a masterpiece but it is far from it.
    And have realized I am not alone in my opinion. I am such a Scorsese fan but he got carried away and lost some objetive perspective.

  • S.R. Snaidero | January 14, 2012 8:10 PMReply

    I have not read a more accurate review of what HUGO really is and has to offer; what Scorsese achieved with great cast and colorful techniques, including the importance of noting how the studio's ill-way of handling its marketing may have unfortunately even hurt its initial perception, only to be found as the true masterpiece it is - once given a chance. Great job Leonard, I hope more people read this review and open their eyes to a rare opportunity brought once every few years. It's what hollywood needs more-of.

  • Doug Reynolds | January 3, 2012 9:17 PMReply

    Finally, an enjoyable 3D movie - a 3D movie that drew me in instead of hurling things out at me. I've never before liked 3D movies because they constantly call attention to the "3Dness" and I am so aware of that I can't just enjoy the film.

  • Matthew | January 3, 2012 4:22 PMReply

    Steven Spielberg used to make excellent family films. It seems that Martin Scorsese has beaten Mr. Spielberg at his own game. Hugo boasts excellent use of 3D while capturing the magic and wonder of making things with one's hands. A truly inspiring film.

  • Norm | December 16, 2011 7:01 PMReply

    Upon further review, my first review stands. Excellent 3-d work , Best Ever, you bet, not only does it enrichen the viewing experience, but Scorcese delivers a Grand Slam of excellent camera shots the take you into the film. Is it a perfect film, no. But I really loved Ben Kingsley as Melies, a wonderful performance. The film is truly a "Celebration of Life, so why the film has some bells and whistles(which aren't clever), the sheer delight of triumph over tragedy is overwhelming and heartfelt)... (tear)

  • Mike Clark | December 10, 2011 3:32 AMReply

    The automaton was not Hugo's uncle's pride and joy...the mechanical man was a restoration project shared by Hugo with his father (played by Jude Law). When the father died in a freak museum fire, Hugo went to live in the train station with his alcoholic, abusive uncle.

    Totally agree with you about the astounding 3D closeup of Cohen. Maybe the best sustained 3D shot ever.

  • mike schlesinger | December 8, 2011 7:50 PMReply

    What an overwhelming experience. And may I add: don't just see it in 3-D, see it on the largest screen possible. We opted for the AMC Century City's ETX house (it's their own fake-IMAX), and the additional sq. ft. of screen truly drew us in even more than we'd dared hope.

    And keep your eyes open or you'll miss Marty's cameo!

  • Michael De Lazzer | December 4, 2011 11:50 PMReply

    This is my favorite movie this year. We went back and forth on whether to see it in 3-D and I opted to go the 2-D route-- what a mistake! I have to go back and see this the way Scorcese intended. What 2-D does allow-- is you pay attention to plot and character more than style. And this is a masterfully told story with no loose or unnecessary characters. It seemed he knew exactly where and when to move the plot and I even developed empathy for the villain! I think this is Scorcese's finest effort in years. Can't wait to see it in 3D!

  • Jack Murphy | November 24, 2011 2:57 PMReply

    Saw Hugo at the Arclight Hollywood last night. This is a wonderful film, the best that I have seen in years. See it in 3-D as it is the best example of 3-D that I have seen. This is a film that adults will enjoy. Most important is that it is Martin Scorsese’s love letter to cinema. If you love cinema and its history, you must see Hugo. Whether the film succeeds financially or not, is not important, its still a masterpiece. Future generations of young moviegoers will finally learn something about the history of cinema.

  • Salty Bill | November 24, 2011 2:25 AMReply

    Saw it tonight. It's exquisitely crafted, and is probably the best use of 3D I've seen in a live-action film. The casting is spot-on, the art direction is rich and idiosyncratic, but the story is a bit thin, and the flow is a little slow. It's wonderful seeing the recreations of Melies' productions, but the whole enterprise seems schematic--like a film school lesson for a favored child. Still, it's one hell of an hommage to the pioneer who sussed out the magic in a brave new medium, and for that, it's essential for all who love film.

  • Dennis Doros | November 23, 2011 5:08 PMReply

    Amy, Adam and I saw it this afternoon and I was overwhelmed by the care and love that Scorsese and his crew showed in portraying Paris, magic, and the magic of cinema. I just spent this past week in Austin with 550+ moving image archivists dedicated to saving the past so I felt his pleas for preservation particularly poignant. It's always amazing how Scorsese creates such different movies, but in each one, finds a way to express his passions (and obsessions) within them.

  • Piecar | December 11, 2011 10:14 PM

    Thank Odin, D Day. I just saw this film and both my friend and I thought it was terrible. Overlong, with useless characters and contrived situations. I thought the 3D was mostly wasted in this film, and would have binned the glasses if I could. The SBC shot WAS good, and the other looking down the inside of the clock tower...But THAT'S why I paid four extra bucks.

    Kids will literally pass out before the movie gets to anything approximating whimsy....Good golly.

  • D-Day | November 23, 2011 9:47 PM

    You're on crack. That movie was not good at all.

  • Karen Snow | November 23, 2011 4:58 PMReply

    I saw this the other night. I was lost in delight during the re-creation of Melies studio and films themselves, not to mention all the references and homages to cinema history appearing throughout. This should only be seen on the big screen. Don't know if kids under 10 will really get into it, but I intend to see it again !

  • Norm | November 23, 2011 4:03 PMReply

    It would take a Film Maven to understand the full use of 3-D to bring out character development, but then, that is what a film Master does, bring the people to life, well done Martin, well done...

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