Scorsese’s Hugo breathes new life into the 3-D medium

Several years into the process, the resurgence of 3-D cinematography is a subject that still stirs up strong feelings among the moviegoing public. Some people of my generation, who grew up in the ‘50s on cheesy 3-D horror flicks like House of Wax and House on Haunted Hill, hate the whole idea and won’t even go near a 3-D projection system to find out what the current fuss is all about. Others who have tried them complain that they get headaches or motion sickness, or that they can’t wear the 3-D goggles because they already wear glasses (they fit just fine over mine, so I don’t get this particular objection).

On the other hand, some people (your humble correspondent included) strongly suspect that 3-D is the wave of the future, or one such wave. By way of analogy, just because we love the early Disney animated movies – painstakingly painted one cell at a time – doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also embrace the astounding new digital techniques pioneered by Pixar. I thought that the Academy’s insistence on giving the 2010 Best Picture Oscar to “anything but Avatar” was a shortsighted bit of cussedness that its members will live to regret. Even if its plot wasn’t much more sophisticated than the 1992 animated feature FernGully, over time it will surely become clear what a milestone in the art of filmmaking Avatar was.

But the 3-D movies that have come out since, lacking James Cameron’s obsessive attention to detail and years of prep work, have been consistently disappointing. Some that were not shot specifically for 3-D and adapted retroactively have earned resounding (and well-earned) boos. But when Cameron himself comes out and declares that somebody else’s movie is “the best 3-D cinematography I’ve ever seen,” trumping his own masterwork, then it’s time for the 3-D-wary public to sit up and take notice.

That the movie in question was made by a top-tier auteur like Martin Scorsese certainly doesn’t hurt. Funny thing, though: I got so immersed in his Hugo that I completely forgot that it was a Scorsese film until the end credits came up. There are none of the hallmarks that one expects from him: no mobsters, no murders, no fight scenes. The director channeled through this movie is the young Scorsese when he was still at NYU Film School, falling in love with the magic of cinema. It’s a love letter to the silent films of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and an attempt to revive appreciation of one of its pioneers whose work was very nearly lost to history.

The fact that his Hugo is not laden with gimmicky set pieces like the flying skulls of the Vincent Price 3-D era also doesn’t hurt. The movie’s use of the medium is much more subtle, yet capitalizes fully and satisfyingly on its potential. Based on the gorgeously illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, the story revolves around an orphaned 12-year-old boy who lives in a train station in Paris in the 1930s, winding the clocks daily while he pilfers clockwork parts to repair a wonderful but non-functioning brass automaton that his late father (Jude Law) has left him. The plot thickens when he gets caught shoplifting by a toyshop owner with a cryptic past, played with a beautiful, cranky melancholy by Ben Kingsley.

To say much more about the storyline would necessitate some very large spoilers, so I’ll turn back to the film’s look. Selznick isn’t the first author to come up with the idea of a ragamuffin carving out a magical existence for himself inside the mysterious innards of a train station: Mark Helprin had his young burglar hero Peter Lake living above the starry ceiling of Grand Central Station in Winter’s Tale, for instance. But it took director Scorsese and producer Johnny Depp to spot the three-dimensional potential of Hugo Cabret’s lair.

Most of the movie is shot inside the station, often following Hugo with long, deep tracking shots along ornate corridors and wrought-iron staircases as vertiginous as any in an Escher engraving. The public spaces of the station, often densely packed with hurrying people, are the realm where Hugo is always in danger, dodging the gimpy-but-determined Station Inspector. The latter – a World War I casualty whose clockwork leg-braces constantly lock up while he is chasing the boy – is played with goofy Clouseauesque panache by Sacha Baron Cohen.

Currently on tap for the title role in the long-awaited movie version of the sci-fi classic Ender’s Game, newcomer Asa Butterfield is impressively nuanced in his portrayal of Hugo. There are long sequences in which the isolated, secretive young protagonist has no lines to say to anybody; yet we can always tell what he is thinking. He meets his match in the toyshop owner’s goddaughter Isabelle, who desperately wants to have some adventures and becomes his partner in crime, trying to solve the mystery of the broken automaton (not to mention several broken people, which is pretty much the theme of the story).

As the clever, spunky girl who loves to read and use big words, Chloë Grace Moretz will remind many young viewers of Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter saga; she even has some of Emma Watson’s facial expressions. Potterheads will also have fun spotting actors from that series in minor roles: Helen McCrory (actually not so minor), Richard Griffiths, even Frances de la Tour as a normal-sized woman. And Christopher Lee gets to go out of his usual evil character as a kindly bookstore proprietor.

In spite of its preteen protagonist being the focus of most every scene in Hugo, it’s not a kid flick, any more than the book was really kid lit. It has the look of fantasy and the feel of magical realism, but nothing happens in it that couldn’t arguably happen in the real world – and some of it really did happen (though here again I will avoid going down the spoiler road). School-age children will enjoy it – a scene where Isabelle is nearly trampled will be too scary for the very little ones – but adults will enjoy it more. It’s fabulous to look at, with an ornately mechanical aesthetic that evokes Jules-Vernesque steampunk (without the usually obligatory airships); it has a heartwarming message; and the mystery will draw you in as much as the 3-D.

So if you’re one of those people who thinks that 3-D is a passing fancy, give Hugo a try before you write off the technology altogether. It’s not one of those movies that will be just as good (or better) in a 2-D theatre. I promise.




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