In the wake of “Avatar,” 3-D films continued to double-dip a formula James Cameron had already outdated. They threw monsters and explosions at the audience, but never invited us into the film itself — the so-called “immersion” left viewers feeling violated and disenchanted. It seems prudent that a filmmaking legend would show the world how to make a 3-D movie. And Martin Scorsese (“The Departed”), the furry-eyed maestro, has answered with his first children’s movie, “Hugo.”
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It’s clear from the opening — a long continuous shot that is pure “Scorsese” — this film’s use of 3-D was premeditated, unlike so many post-conversion productions (see “Clash of the Titans”). As the audience is invited into the world of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, “Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang”), the camera moves through throngs of people, making the viewer feel so very small and helpless. It climbs catwalks and clock towers as drifts of snow and plumes of steam literally billow in the audience’s faces.
While “Hugo” is a technological marvel, it’s still a Scorsese picture at heart. The great filmmaker once said his true interests in his craft were stories and characters. His love for both has never been more apparent than in this film.
Living secretly in the walls of a Parisian railway station, Hugo steals spare parts to fix an automaton his deceased father never finished — but alas, no parts will do. He shares this dream with a girl named Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz, “Kick-Ass”), a bubbly and precocious wordsmith who also lost her parents.
In addition to the duo, the secondary characters color each scene with comic relief and substance. Like Hugo and Isabelle, they possess a gooey vulnerability that none would like to admit to. Wounded from the Great War, Sacha Baron Cohen’s (“Bruno”) Inspector Gustav drags his leg in a brace and admires a flower shop girl, always at a distance (which the 3-D beautifully captures), afraid his deformity doesn’t make him “man” enough for her. Gustav is the antagonist, but it’s hard not to love him.
But the most important character to Hugo (and the film) is none other than the real-life film visionary Georges Méliès (“A Trip to the Moon”), a man known as the world’s first cinemagician for his ability to transform reality on the silver screen. To Hugo and Isabelle, he is Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley, “Gandhi”), a frank toy shop owner in the railway station. After Papa Georges is revealed, it’s clear this film tackles much more than the cute story of an orphan named Hugo.
Ultimately, this is the closest Scorsese has come to blending his life and journey as an artist with his work. As an asthmatic boy in Little Italy, he was sequestered from the world outside. He observed people, how they interacted, why they did things — it’s actually how “Goodfellas” came about.
Like the director, Hugo is an alienated observer who desperately wants a place in society. He fixes machines to give them their purpose, but more than anything he wants to fix himself. In doing so, however, he heals the heart of an old man — George Méliès.
Scorsese’s life’s passion is cinema. One of the underlying themes of “Hugo” is film preservation, an issue the Oscar winner has spearheaded, and he treats this topic with honesty and care. The background may be filled with visual sparkle, but the foreground always belongs to the characters he crafts. Butterfield pierces the screen with his eyes. Moretz is charming, and her transformation from the foul-mouthed mini-hero in “Kick-Ass” to Hugo’s only friend is astounding. As for Kingsley, Scorsese allows him to to fill the screen with emotion. If Méliès were alive, he would’ve been honored.
With this tour-de-force in 3-D filmmaking, Scorsese asks his audiences to embrace this new form of storytelling. With this magical cinema love letter, he reminds the world why films are so important. With this tale of an orphan boy, a broken old man, a lively wordsmith and a hilarious railway inspector, he reaffirms a faith in humanity and filmmaking that should never be forgotten.
Mr. Martin Scorsese: For your salute to George Méliès, we salute you.