06 December 2011

Martin Scorsese's Hugo (2011)

For the first several minutes of Hugo, the new family-friendly movie by the great Martin Scorsese, I was disoriented. Maybe it was because of the previews, which included a trailer for Spielberg's Tintin, or maybe I was just too tired for a 10:30pm screening, but I guess I kinda thought that Hugo was going to be animated, but it's not. But it is. Or it easily could be. Let me try to explain.

Hugo is a gorgeous feast for the eyes. It combines CGI and 3D photography to create a rich mise en scène that doesn't just invite the viewer in—it plunges us into the depths of a Paris train station's inner workings and lifts us to the height of the station's highest clock tower, overlooking an animated, always nighttime, Paris streetscape, with the luminescent Eiffel Tower dominating the horizon. So, perhaps it's the 3D, often computer-enhanced setting that gives Hugo an animated feel.

From the official website: http://www.hugomovie.com/assets/sections/downloads/icons/wallpapers/03_wide.html
It could also be the children who star in the movie, Asa Butterfield (Son of Rambow) and Chlöe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass), that make it easy to imagine Hugo as an animated film. As in some of her other performances, Moretz is hyper-precocious without being annoying, embodying an exuberant love of life...and of SAT vocab. But, obviously, it's Asa Butterfield as Hugo who carries the film (with considerable assistance from the always amazing Sir Ben Kingsley in a major role and the always cartoonish Sacha Baron Cohen in a relatively minor one). The luminous Butterfield could almost be an anime character, with his large, liquid eyes, up-tilted nose, and expressive face, and his slightly too-large head on his small child body. He's brilliant in the film, conveying his character's history and complex present moment with a wrinkle of his chin or a minute sideways glance.

But Hugo is not animated, after all. In fact, depicting the story by Brian Selznick, it weaves the real-life story of film pioneer, George Méliès. This storyline provides Scorsese an opportunity to hold forth on one of his favorite topics: film history and preservation. The only review I saw (ok, heard) before seeing Hugo was David Edelstein's review on NPR. He said,
I liked the film a lot, but am not so ready to use the "m" word. When Melies appears, the movie becomes a plea for Scorsese's film-preservation cause — which I'm 100 percent behind, but which introduces an element of self-consciousness that pulls the narrative off the rails.
I didn't think so. Yes, it's clearly a "teaching moment" for Scorsese, but I found his distillation of Méliès' classic films into a 3D montage delightful—just part of the larger "m" word of the movie. And while these Méliès clips might represent a pause in the narrative, I found it no more disruptive than a musical number in Singin' in the Rain, or something like that.

So, whether or not you're a fan of early French cinema, I strongly recommend seeing Hugo, and keep your eyes wide open so that you don't miss a second of the magic. 

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