Review: Hugo

The American children’s film has been in a serious state of crisis. Gone are the days when movies for kids were based on genuine thrills and narrative efficiency. Over the past decade or so, the kids movie has downgraded to the lowest common denominator, throwing away any semblance of meaningful plot and focusing instead on a visual overdrive the equivalent of heaping spoonfuls of sugar into its young audience’s mouths. Meaningless images saturated with color fly by at a breakneck pace akin to the speed of a cereal commercial, and what does the average child take away from this? Just a bundle of energy and no memories to accompany it. Its easy to make the argument that kids need not have their minds stimulated, if only they can sit still for a couple of hours. This may be true to a point, but it is also important to remember that it is at the beginnings of one’s life that one’s brain has the highest potential to soak up everything around it. The contemporary world of American animation is already realizing this, with films coming from studios like Pixar, Aardman, and occasionally Dreamworks, which are equal parts visually appealing and intellectually stimulating. It is the live action world that has been failing its children’s intelligence for many years.

However, every once in a while, an intelligent filmmaker comes along and shakes things up, giving the audience a new perspective on any given genre. At first glance, of all the directors to give a new spin at the kids movie, Martin Scorsese seems to be the most unlikely candidate of them all. With his track record containing some of the most searing character portraits and psychologically and physically violent films over the past forty years, how could such a director make a film about a young boy living in a train station in Paris? As it turns out, Scorsese has a knack for turning genres on their ears. He nearly single handedly reinvented the gangster picture, not once, but twice with Mean Streets in 1973 and again with GoodFellas in 1990. He’s also made biopics of famous historical figures unlike any other biopics ever made, including Raging Bull, Kundun, and The Aviator. So just when the kids film needed a serious shake up, Scorsese turned out to be the perfect man for Hollywood to turn to. In fact, the overall result of his work on Hugo is downright dazzling. It is unquestionably a film aimed at children, but carries an intelligence about it that never demeans them, and equally asks of them to explore beyond their boundaries.

Hugo, the film’s title character, lives in one of the big train stations in Paris during the 1920’s, following the carnage that was World War I. As an orphan, he lives within the massive clocks that adorn the train station, where he tries as often as possible to keep out of trouble while managing to find scraps of food when he can. A lover of inventions and building many things, he is the inheritor of an automaton, a mechanical man his late father found abandoned. Though he has painstakingly worked to restore the automaton, he is missing a key to get it to work. When he gets into a dispute with a toy maker at the station who is infuriated when he finds the plans to the automaton, Hugo’s journey to discovering his purpose begins. Now, at first glance, a film with such a plot could have gone with a very “by the numbers” approach to its storytelling, especially considering the fact that Hugo also runs into the toy maker’s goddaughter, who happens to have the key that fits into the automaton. Granted, once the discovery of the purpose of the automaton is made clear, the film no longer concerns itself with it, which is somewhat curious. Nevertheless, things are never simple when one is in the hands of a master filmmaker like Martin Scorsese. As it turns out, one of the very many reasons Scorsese related to Hugo was due to the fact that the toy maker is actually Georges Melies, one of the very early pioneers of cinema. As an unabashed cinema historian and preservationist, Scorsese’s film is much more than just about finding one’s purpose in life. The preservation of film not only allows us to enjoy the masterpieces of the past, but learn from them as well, just as our pasts make us who we are today. The film turns out to be just as much about Melies as it is about Hugo.

In terms of its cinematic breath, Hugo once again affirms that Scorsese, even as he approaches 70, is among the masters of the medium. Dante Ferrelli’s production design is marvelous all around, focusing largely on practical, large scale sets as opposed to CGI extensions. The score by Howard Shore is among the primary aural cues that truly drive the picture, providing us with a naturally Parisian atmosphere with a sense of adventure. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editorial expertise is as assured as ever, but is less flashy than in many other pictures, choosing instead to make itself present during the scenes of grater tension and interest. All of the performances in the film are splendid as well. Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz carry the film well enough as the two central children, and the adults around them only help their performances. Sacha Baron Cohen is as dependable as ever for comic relief, and though I usually groan at the sight of cutaways to dogs, his pooch is quite amiable as well. The standout here is Sir Ben Kingsley as Melies, whose sandpaper rough exterior hides a depressing past he’d much rather forget.

The film’s greatest asset is the sumptuous 3D photography by Robert Richardson. By now, the novelty of 3D since Avatar has faded and it has become apparent that audiences are no longer interested in its use, largely due to the up charge in movie tickets. However, in the hands of Scorsese, 3D does nothing but to enhance the viewing experience of Hugo, and I frankly can’t imagine seeing it in 2D. In fact, I would say that the use of 3D in Hugo surpasses even that of Avatar. The attention to depth of field (foreground to background) is what makes 3D work best, and because of this, Scorsese and Richardson often opt for deep focus shots as well as meticulously choreographed long takes. Because of these choices, 3D truly becomes integral to immersing the audience into Hugo’s world. For instance, the second shot of the film takes us from the skies of Paris, and down into the train station passing by all the people and moving up towards the clock in which Hugo sits. This is accomplished in one fluid take, reminiscent of GoodFellas, as well as another shot which follows Hugo throughout the inner workings of the clock and out into the station. It turns out 3D may very well have a place in cinema after all, for in Scorsese’s film, it places an emphasis on atmosphere and tension with absolute subtlety, and never feels obtrusive to the viewing experience.

After winning his Academy Award five years ago, it seemed like Scorsese no longer had anything to prove while working in film. It is such a wonder that even as he is in the late phase of his career, he is still experimenting, still finding new ways to tell stories, and more than ever interested in not only cinema’s past, but more importantly, its future.

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~ by romancinema on November 26, 2011.

One Response to “Review: Hugo”

  1. Great writing. Very nice post today thanks. You have an excellent blog here. Thanks again for sharing.

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