Few would argue that Martin Scorsese is a master of storytelling; but many are no doubt scratching their heads at his latest enterprise, a 3-D retelling of Brian Selznick’s book for children, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" called simply Hugo. Scorsese has never embraced 3-D - he’s one of Hollywood’s last film purists - and he certainly has rarely aimed his movies at youngsters or families.
But this is not the departure it seems to be. "Hugo" is a children’s tale, and a family film, for sure; but it’s primarily a love letter to Scorsese’s true passion: films. And his use of new technologies to tell this tale fits with the movie’s larger discourse, expressed so poignantly, and with such artistry, as to drive home the power of mythology pursuant to the human condition irrespective of medium. In short, "Hugo" is a richly conceived, lovingly-crafted, heartfelt holiday movie that will enchant both its target audiences: movie-lovers and movie aficionados.
The central character is a young orphaned boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the walls of a Parisian train station in the 1930s. Bereft of the caretaking of a drunken uncle (Ray Winstone), Hugo is forced to tend the station’s numerous clocks on his own in order that the resident gendarme, a socially unrefined yet cantankerous limper (Sacha Baron Cohen), never discovers his illicit existence and sends him to an orphanage. Aside from watching the comings and goings of the stations passengers, Hugo strives to continue the work that his deceased father (Jude Law) left incomplete: the restoration of an automaton whose purpose remains a mystery. The need for machined parts leads him to steal from a toy shop proprietor (Ben Kingsley). And that doesn’t sit well with the old man. He confiscates Hugo’s prized possession - his father’s notebook - and Hugo is forced into an uneasy alliance with the toymaker’s granddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who seeks adventure and sees in Hugo’s predicament a chance to live out her cloak-and-dagger fantasies. Instead, the two youngsters find themselves caught in the evolving chronicle of the older man’s life as well as the history of filmmaking.
Thematically and visually, "Hugo" is both complex and rich, not unlike a luxuriant bottle of wine. Scorsese uncorks the story slowly, allowing the tapestry of characters, subtexts and visual composition to come deliberately to life. This may tax those without patience such as smaller children; but the payoff lies in the emotional entanglement of both the machinery and the story, just as the plot’s mysteries are unlocked via an inorganic key in the shape of a heart. That includes his utilization of 3-D technology, which is both artfully and effectively leveraged for more than gimmickry - particularly when it comes to artful touches such as smoke and particles of dust, which while expensive and arguably superfluous nonetheless imbue the picture with visual depth. You’ll need to let this bottle rest, then enjoy it slowly; at nearly two-and-a-half hours, a relinquishing of your Hollywood sensibilities to Scorsese’s capable direction is both required and rewarded.
Those unfamiliar with central character Georges Méliès will appreciate the film’s exposition of this historical figure, who played such a prominent role in the evolution of special effects in motion pictures. Film history buffs, meanwhile, will acknowledge this homage in lock step with Scorsese’s implied affirmation of technology’s perpetual evolvement within cinematic art; hence the artful synthesis of traditional filmmaking with digital invention on display here. As such, to not see this film in 3-D would be akin to drinking that wine in a kitchen tumbler; I’m rarely a fan of this fad, but "Hugo" will not resonate correctly apart from its technical machinations.
Ultimately, Méliès’ story is a tragedy fraught with piracy, financial destruction and simple bad timing. But his pioneering spirit laid a path directly to auteurs like Scorsese; and in "Hugo," his contributions are not only laid bare (witness the inclusion of his 1902 "A Trip to the Moon," among others) but celebrated as great moments in cinema virtuosity. As such, "Hugo" speaks, via characters both large and small, to the resilience of the human spirit and the worth of redemption and joy as seen through the eyes of an orphaned child. Go see it.