I’ve long argued that 3D wouldn’t be anything more than a fad until directors adapted their creative approach. Most 3D movies, such as Coraline (2009) and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), practically ignore the technology, presenting two-dimensional narratives with three-dimensional imagery. Others, like Step Up 3D (2010), forgo any pretence of storytelling and content themselves with throwing cool stuff at the viewers. Hugo does neither, opting instead to let 3D enhance the established cinematic language.
Consider the opening shot piercing through Paris all the way to the title character’s secret home in the walls of a train station. In keeping with tradition, the camera movement is used to evoke the mind’s journey into an imaginary world, except now we’re made aware of the layers padding its troposphere. I also love the sequence re-enacting the Lumière brothers’ first screening, or rather its urban legend, with the projection of an oncoming train appearing in 2D and the gasping viewers, in 3D. Director Martin Scorsese has at last turned the 3D gimmick into a genuine craft, which is fitting given his movie celebrates the transformation of the film medium into an art.
I hesitate to go into more details for fear of spoiling a major plot point. Here’s what I can reveal: based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the film tells of an orphan, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who steals toy parts to repair a discarded automaton in the 1930s. The boy’s life takes an uncanny turn when he gets caught by the store owner, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), and befriends his intrepid goddaughter, Isabelle. She’s played by Chloë Grace Moretz, who can express a lifetime of wonderment with one eager smile but loses me every time she spews out that horrid British accent meant to pass for French. All the performers do it except for Christopher Lee, who portrays the local librarian, Mounsieur Labisse. I don’t get it either.
At any rate, I mention all this for purely academic reasons, since Hugo doesn’t turn out the hero of the story so much as a narrative device to explore one of cinema’s greatest influences. Screenwriter John Logan, or perhaps author Brian Selznick, has found the perfect way to recount the life of a visionary artist without diluting it in typical biopic melodrama. You’ll find no drug addiction, child abuse, or broken marriage in this picture, just passionate dreamers finding their way back from a ghostly existence and discovering their legacy.
This is not to say Hugo lacks tension or excitement. The movie delivers a number of grandiose set pieces referencing some of the most iconic moments in early cinema. Take, for example, the one in which Hugo hangs from the minute hand of a giant clock above the train station, the way it evokes the classic scene in Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923). Admittedly, such tributes target film connoisseurs almost exclusively, leaving the rest of the audience at a loss. In fact, the first twenty minutes are drowned in so much metaphor some viewers may end up wanting to shoot themselves in the head.
To call the pacing self-indulgent would be an understatement. Hugo is filled with subplots that serve no other purpose than to add whimsy where economy is needed. Spoiler alert: the thread involving two café patrons and a barking dog goes nowhere. By the same token, we spend far too much time with Hugo’s nemesis, Inspecteur Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), whose obsession with catching homeless orphans hides a complex sense of duty and compassion. I like the character a lot, but his development detracts from the story as a whole.
Perhaps Scorsese’s adaptation would have been better served if the director had tried to capture the frantic energy characterising the works to which he pays homage. As it is, I suspect most viewers will find the whole affair a tad precious. Like Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), parts of which are showcased in the final act, Hugo is more likely to touch the hearts of critics, historians, and true blue cinephiles than those of general audiences today. Of course, that doesn’t make either film any less worthwhile.