Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Written By: John Logan, based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Produced By: Johnny Depp, Martin Scorsese, Graham King, Timothy Headington
Edited By: Thelma Schoonmaker
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Chloe Moretz, Jude Law, Christopher Lee
Music By: Howard Shore
Distributed By: Paramount Pictures
Budget: > $150 million
Runtime: 127 minutes
Leave it to Scorsese to blow us away with a 3D film so fantastic you almost forget its in 3D. I say that not because the 3D isn’t noticeable but rather because it blends so perfectly with not only the shot composition but the narrative itself your immersion is truly complete. I wasn’t planning to see Hugo in theaters, but after reading not a single negative review I decided it was worth it. I chose well. Hugo as a film alone is seamless. It’s a story that is heartwarming in the best of ways with characters you care for no matter how little their screen time. Especially for those of us interested in the history behind movies and what exactly makes them so magical, Hugo delves deep into that with a tale for all ages.
NOTICE: This post contains NO spoilers for Hugo.
It’s also in 3D, but this is 3D by Scorsese. I remember when the project was publicly announced in 2010. Half of the internet was of the “this validates 3D!” mindset and the other half was “Scorsese was sold himself out just like Cameron/Spielberg/Lucas/Jackson/Zemeckis/so on.” I don’t think there can be any argument as to which side has won. This film is shot in 3D without the word “gimmick” even existing in the dictionary. Every shot is planned, blocked, framed, and every other verb used for the steps of composition with triple dimensions in mind. It says a lot about Scorsese and his crew because he’s using the same cinematographer he usually does, Robert Richardson. What they create not only deserves to be seen and remember as a good film but also as a film that defined its time – both diegesis (1930s Paris) and non-(a 2010s film industry trying to convince audiences 3D is worth the price). Hugo is both about 3D and about the magic of movies, two themes curiously sharing many qualities.
I’d like to start by embedding a short conversation between James Cameron and Martin Scorsese talking about 3D and his artistic use of it in Hugo. It’s not long and very cutup (no doubt a longer interview is being saved for the Blu-Ray), and there are no spoilers. Check it out below:
Those of you who keep up with this blog know I’ve written several posts defending 3D. I fully consider it a cinematic tool no different from lighting or shot composition, visual effects, so on. It’s a hard thing to defend, though, when the films supporting you are so few (Avatar, A Christmas Carol, a few others that were post-converted) and the ones working against you so many (most films post-converted into 3D just to try to ride the wave). Consider was Cameron says, “3D is another paint to add to your artistic canvas,” to which Scorsese heartily nods and agrees.
I could talk on and on about 3D, but I feel like there’s something more special about this film. So I’ll keep the 3D praise short: so far the best films shot in 3D where motion-capture, like Avatar. While awesome, there’s something about achieving that extra dimension in a live-action setting that impresses. Scorsese gives us several long dolly tracks, some shots with extreme depth of field (vertical shot down the huge staircase of the clock tower), along with a few rack focuses that are just perfect. These are not the type of shots you just think of to do. They are shots that require an eye for what you want the picture to look like. You have to seek out these shots, and in 3D it’s even more challenging. From a cinematic standpoint, if you watch Hugo in 2D you’re not seeing the full picture. The 3D is not obnoxious, but it’s also not just there. It’s used like any paintbrush in an artist’s toolkit.
While making a film that will serve as a standard in moviemaking, however, Scorsese has also provided us with a truly heartwarming tale of one of film’s earliest innovators: George Melies. I don’t want to give too much of the film away, though I do not think knowing the plot will ruin the wonder of it. I’ll only say that the film, being set in the 1930s, exists in a world where movies are still a new, exciting thing. What is more important, it exists in a world where almost everyone can remember a time before movies, and the pure wonder and amazement of seeing those initial vaudeville cinematograph moving picture shows. It’s a sense of awe we tend to take for granted today because almost all of us have been raised watching films and television, but deep down we are not that different from early twentieth-century audiences.
There’s an ongoing literary discussion over the similarities between early and modern moviegoers. Many have probably heard the story of audiences watching Train Arrives at a Station and jumping in their seats because they thought the moving train would blast through the screen. This story is largely myth, but it does represent early audience’s mindset: not one of fear but of awe at the technological achievement they were experiencing. This was the peak of the industrial revolution, an era of world’s fairs where more and more machines were doing things no one ever could have imagined. Cars, planes, tanks, the horrors and glory of The Great War. It was an era of fear and unsettling from the massive migration into urban centers, and out of this the ability for moving pictures to take people out of the real world blossomed.
George Melies represents everything spectacular about movies. Originally a magician, he became a filmmaker because he recognized the potential it served in transporting audiences to magical places. “This is where dreams are build,” he says, referring to a movie set, and it’s oh so very true. Unfortunately, many of Melies’ films, along with many an early filmmaker, were lost over time, especially during the Great War. It’s hard, but try to imagine how horrible it would be if there was literally no copy of, say, Alfred Hitchcock films on the planet. It’s saddening, but very common for early filmmakers before film archives were something respected and widespread. A loss of this kind is sad because of how truly magical and creative films are, something we take for granted, perhaps wrongly, today.
It is this magic of early movies, and movies in general, that Hugo is themed. It’s difficult, but Scorsese manages, by investing us first in the hearts and minds of his characters, to also give us a hint of the awe that early audiences felt when seeing movies. As we watch Hugo and company watch early Lumiere and Melies films we can, just slightly, begin to imagine what that would have been like. For film people like myself, or Scorsese for that matter, this experience is beautiful. I think, though, that even for the average moviegoer there’s something special about it. They may not be able to explain it at the time, but deep down Hugo is forging a bond between now and then by way of a medium that nearly all people on this planet share in.
I’ve embedded below a YouTube version of Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, which features prominently in the film. You see clips, but not the entire piece, so it’s nice to get a grasp of beforehand. It’s also a piece of film history that’s good for everyone to see to begin with.
Hugo isn’t just a technological or historical pitch-perfect hit. It’s also a great family film. I was surprised by how enjoyable all the supporting characters are, including those that are there purely for comedic purposes. It should be expected considering the cast, but it’s still relieving when the newspaper man, the baker, the flower girl, and the station inspector can bring such a smile to your face. There are no characters to despise here, even the “semi-antagonist” has a lovable, charming side. And the main cast provides solid performances that bring their (in some cases) nonfictional characters to live on screen. You feel for the emotions of everyone and really want things to end up happily, just like the movies promise us.
I went into Hugo with high expectations and was rewarded a film deserving of such. There’s nothing I can find wrong and in fact I very much want to see it again, in 3D. In that way, Hugo is a masterpiece film of two worlds, past and present, that represents everything about movies that people enjoy, from their introduction in the 1890s all the way to the IMAX 3D epics we see today. Watching Hugo turns you into the same audience that watched Le Voyage dans la lune in 1902, and it’s a wonderful experience. See Hugo not just for the family bonding and the cool 3D shots; see it for the history and legacy of moviemaking that we continue to share in and add to today, and appear to have no intentions of stopping.