Stars – Asa Butterfield , Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Lee, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen
Director – Martin Scorsese
Released by Paramount
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
Martin Scorsese has been quoted as saying that he wanted to make a film that his twelve year old daughter could see. He’s done that but also made one for the twelve year still inside him. He has combined that marvelous adventurous time of growing up with a bittersweet adult ability to look far back. Imagine though if when you looked back part of what made those times so special was gone, or fading away.
These themes weave in and out of a delightful tale that first appeared as a book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Sleznick. Was he related to that Selznick? Indeed he was. Mr. Selznick’s grandfather was a cousin of the legendary Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, How fitting is that! If you pick that book up you’ll see that almost the first thirty or so pages are filled with a series of very detailed pencil like drawings before you get to any real text at all. The whole book is interspersed with drawings like the kind that kids with a lot of imagination and talent used to fill their school notebooks with. It’s no wonder that this connected so well with a total film lover like Scorsese who fell in love with movies at about that same age.
The story is set in Paris, of the twenties, in a bustling train station. The camera rushes through the crowds very much at a child’s eye level and up into the high ceiling, climbing higher until we meet an eye looking back at us from inside the numeral four of a gigantic clock. This is where Hugo lives. Without any parents he spends his days keeping this vast array of clocks in the station set and ticking away from inside a winding catwalk in a hidden world. He’s got a book of drawings his father left him and a strange mechanical man that is poised to write a message if only Hugo’s wonderful tinkering talents can bring him back to life again. It’s a puzzle that needs a key. The key is later found to be dangling around the neck of a bookish young girl he meets. Like a good story that key serves to unlock an adventure that travels in many directions. Isabelle’s overprotective godfather turns out to be George Melies another tinkerer like Hugo, only this man made a series of delicious fantasy movies that once enthralled much of the world. Now those films are gone, faded into antiquity and memories leaving only a bitter man who refuses have his heart and soul unlocked again.
The train station looks like a small city with shops and cafes. People buy flowers, rush to meet trains, sip espresso clustered around small tables and listen to a lively jazz band led by gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. Scorsese has populated this very sunny village with little dramas and romances. The stationmaster played by Sacha Baron Cohen is always on the prowl for trouble making kids. He’s got a wobbly mechanical brace for one leg and a vicious Doberman tugging at the leash in one hand. He fancies the flower girl but can’t seem to smile at her. The owner of the café is wooed by an elderly man with a scarf played wonderfully by British character actor Richard Griffiths who is constantly being attacked by her Dachshund dog. Everyone just needs a little fixing to be able to fit in. It makes a terrific backdrop. When Hugo and his new friend are on the run there the camera always whooshes in between all the adult legs and suitcases. These are the kind of shots that Scorsese is known for. Yet amidst all the fine photography and digital scenery it’s great to see a real mechanical man and some truly impressive practical miniature effects, too.
The station toy shop owner who is really the filmmaker George Melies is played with a nice physicality by Ben Kingsly. He looms over the young Hugo with his anger yet is mostly seen hunched in lonely despair. As we learn his background the early years of motion pictures come to life. Scorsese said, “ I didn’t realize there are generations who do not know about the origins of film. I love the fact young people may learn about this” Concurrent with this is the librarian played by Christopher Lee. When we meet him he is foreboding, the keeper of all that is written. His library is filled with stacks and stacks of books. He looks down at us from a towering desk, yet has a fondness for Isabelle and has been aiding her to discover the worlds those books offer. She even speaks with a vocabulary that shows she has spent much more time reading than having actual conversations with people. One can’t help but notice that while Melies’ films are gone, save for one that is held dear and precious by the writer of a book about him, Lee is always seen giving these books away. At one point Hugo bumps into him in the station and notices a copy of Robin Hood has fallen out of his hands. The librarian says I had intended this as a gift for my godson but now I think it is intended for you. He gives it to him. It is a marvelously played scene. There is much to treasure and share about art. Some critics have complained that Scorsese’s personal campaign for film preservation is too heavy handed a message in this film. To this reviewer it is as perfect a fit as that heart shaped key is for the mechanical man.
Seeing Hugo on the big screen in 3-D one was struck by how well the 3-D process was integrated into the production design rather than sticking out like a series of gimmicks. Depth of field was a veritable playground that the actors moved through. The vertical scale also became very much alive with Hugo climbing up, down and around the clockwork mazes, scurrying up ladders and sliding down chutes. While some of that deep depth does not translate, the perspective lines are still there and the very careful compositions still draw you head long into the frame. Watching Hugo on Blu-Ray the backgrounds are more easily appreciated without things swirling around so much. There is so much intricate detail there that the more intimate home viewing experience is a very rewarding one.
At the very end of the film, there is a kind of epilogue scene set at a party that gives us a tour of all the film’s characters. It feels very satisfyingly old school to see all the loose ends so neatly tied up.
Blu-Ray 1080p 1.85:1. This Blu-Ray is simply a stunning example of how good this format can look. This easily qualifies as reference quality. Scorsese who is so adept with all kinds of film stock, a man who practically bleeds celluloid when you cut him, has embraced much of the new digital medium. There is intricate detail in the clock mechanisms, the sumptuous production design and color scheme’s blue and gold hues look to be perfectly realized. The Standard DVD, enhanced for 16X9 more than holds its own here too. While the Blu-Ray is the recommended choice, if that’s what you have to look at, it is still a marvelous picture. The first two screen caps are publicity stills that do not reflect the quality of the Blu-Ray, the others were taken directly from the DVD.
The Blu-Ray sports a thoroughly enveloping DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 as the default. Dolby 5.1 tracks in French, Spanish and Portuguese and subtitles in the same languages are offered plus an English SDH. The DVD shares all but the 7.1 track. Hugo presents a very clear and emersive track. The manipulation and directionality of the 7.1 mix is a delight to sit in the middle of. There is a good variety to be distinguished in the sounds of the various clocks. During a chase scene, the sound of the Doberman’s toenails clicking on the metal stair steps is a nice touch. The lovely period French style soundtrack is driven by its accordion and Django Reinhardt inspired guitar runs. One can find lots of separation in the track so you can pick out each piece distinctly.
“Shoot the Moon” (The Making of Hugo), “The Cinemagician, Georges Méliès”
“The Mechanical Man at the Heart of Hugo”, “Big Effects, Small Scale”,
“Sacha Baron Cohen: Role of a Lifetime”
The pieces on the automaton and how they achieved the train wreck scene effects with large scale miniatures are fascinating. Sacha Cohen’s bit is quite funny.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic
Blu-Ray – Classic
DVD – Excellent
Movie – Classic