Easily one of 2011’s best films, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a lyrical dream, a film that pays homage to what is so transformative about cinema — its possibilities, its power, and its magic. You’d probably think, then, that Hugo would be full of rapid-fire cuts and scenes that move so fast you can’t keep up with them. That would be true, probably, of the movie you’d imagine Scorsese would make when dabbling in 3-D for the first time. That is what I expected. The last thing I expected was this slow dance, this melancholy masterpiece that takes its time telling its story, and fills itself not only with dazzling visuals but moments of genuine sentiment.
Scorsese is not known for creating stories with such an emotional pull. Hugo was born out of his love for cinema and his day-to-day relationship with his almost 12 year-old daughter. Hanging around a child can do that to you – a world that seems bland and predictable can, through their eyes, seem vibrant. Scorsese is seeing the world through different eyes here. When he isn’t having what appears to be a lot of fun with 3-D, he’s finding what makes the best stories about children good: you have to be hard on them, not easy.
Back in the 1980s there was a book released, Masquerade, that had a treasure hunt slowly revealed inside. If you could solve the puzzle you could win a bejeweled rabbit. Does anyone remember that? The book and its prize were so captivating, yet the challenge seemed insurmountable. Hugo evokes a similar kind of insurmountable magic – how did he, how could he? Yet somehow he could and he did. From the first frame to the last Hugo is a marvel.
Much of what makes the film really work is the lead performance, Asa Butterfield as Hugo, an orphaned homeless kid who lives in the train station. He is stalked by a typical storybook villain played by a scene-stealing Sacha Baron Cohen, and then befriended by a curious girl named Isabelle (Chloe Moretz). As the mystery of an automaton in Hugo’s possession comes to life, a world is uncovered — and it’s the world of long forgotten films.
You fall into Hugo with your beliefs hopefully suspended, your imagination recalling a the array of illustrations and illusions your mind effortlessly presented you with and you stare, breathlessly, as what this director with this technology can do. You won’t see anything like Hugo this year, maybe never.
Jim Cameron has said he likes 3-D because, when done right, it becomes an Event to bring audiences back into theaters again to experience a sensation they can’t get anywhere else. Hugo doesn’t need the 3-D to be a good film. It succeeds on story alone. But oh, what 3-D can achieve in Scorsese’s capable hands. It’s spectacular spectacular. A kaleidoscope dream, a clockwork marvel.
We’re not really supposed to be writing actual reviews, just extended comments. From a below-the-line standpoint, Hugo has it all — art direction, score, cinematography, costume design, sound — and of course, editing by the great Thelma Schoonmaker. This film should lead in all those categories. If it were only impeccable technical flourish,, that would be one thing. But it is so much more than that.
In a perfect world, Hugo would be nominated for Picture, Director, Screenplay and Supporting Actor. But the Academy has a blind-spot for movies involving children, just as it has a blind-spot for “genre movies.” So I won’t get my hopes up that Hugo will be nominated in the major categories. All I can do is talk about what a great movie it is, how talented Scorsese still is. Hugo may be his most personal film because it shows the purity of his love for film-making and films themselves, his respect for the history of cinema and the promise of its future.