Hugo a Visual Treat

Hugo (2011)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Paramount, 126 mins. PG

* * *

If you missed it in the theater, Oscar Best Picture nominee Hugo is now on video. Although its superb lighting suffers a bit on the small screen, you won’t miss anything by not seeing it in 3D. In fact, it’s probably a better film not seen in 3D as the gimmicks would detract from the film’s surface beauty.

Hugo marries two unlikely genres, adolescent movies and early films. The movie is set in 1931, and centers on 12-year-old Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who lives high above a Paris railway station and meticulously cares for the elaborate clocks that once dominated the grand edifices from the age of steam. (Think of the clock in D’Oursay, now an art museum, though the station is supposed to be Montparnasse.) Hugo must stay out of sight for several reasons. His widowed master clockmaker father–played in flashback sequences by Jude Law–is tragically killed in a fire and all that stands between Hugo and the orphanage is the guardianship of his drunken uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), who has been AWOL for months. The station is patrolled by a gamey-legged but eagle-eyed inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who delights in apprehending miscreants and homeless boys and sending them off to the children’s’ home. Hugo has to be doubly careful, as he’s also been stealing food to survive and nicking machine parts from the station’s toyshop owner (Ben Kingsley) in the hope of restoring an antique automaton that his father was working on when he died.

Scorsese does a lovely job of filming the small prosaic dramas that take place inside the station: the station’s hustle and bustle, the fading elegance of a café where Django Reinhardt plays and Salvador Dali sips coffee, the inspector’s shy courtship of a flower seller, and their autumn-of-life counterpart--the rotund Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) and the snippy-dog-toting Madame Emilie (Francis de la Tour). In the hands of a lesser director, Hugo could have easily degenerated into sentimental mush; especially once Hugo strikes up an unlikely friendship with the toyshop owner’s daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the two embark on a series of misadventures. Luckily, Marty Scorsese is behind the camera, not some paint-by-the-numbers Disney hireling. The film won five Oscars, three of which were for its stunning visual effects (including best cinematography). Whereas Disney might have bathed this film in lurid colors, Scorsese is not afraid to paint from a dark palette. The interplay between shadow and light is very effective, especially when Scorsese contrasts the darkness of the clock gears and loft spaces with the well-lighted and more sumptuous interiors of the station.

And then there’s the film’s other drama. Like The Artist–a far superior film–Scorsese pays tribute to the silent film era, though he reaches even further back in time. The toyshop owner, as is often the case of movie sad sacks, harbors a secret: he’s none other than Georges Méliès, the pioneer magician and filmmaker whose Trip to the Moon (1902) is regarded as one of cinema’s earliest gems. It’s Scorsese’s turn to engage in boy-like wonder once the Méliès back story comes out and we see–also in flashback–early films being made and their dreamlike but cheesy sets being transformed by the camera. There are also numerous references to numerous old films for devoted cinema buffs, including a pretty obvious take on Harold Lloyd in Safety First.

It would be fair criticism to argue that the film’s two halves often feel like a forced fit. There are times in which Scorsese can’t seem to make up his mind if he wants to make a wholesome family picture or a historical detective movie. It’s also abidingly clear that he’s indulging his lifetime passion for the childlike magic of movies. There were times, in fact, in which I wanted to yell, “Marty! Cinema Paradiso has already been made! That said, even with its flaws, Hugo is a charming little film. And because it’s Scorsese, you know it will look good.

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