by Rob Boylan
Mild spoilers ahead.
Being so busy last week, I didn't get to see Martin Scorsese's Hugo until Monday afternoon, and I didn't finish getting my thoughts in order until today. Initially, I was cold on the whole idea of Scorsese making a kid's film, and in 3D.
3D?! Marty? Et tu Brute?
However, I stand corrected. I stand flogged with my own anti-3D conviction, honestly. I started to warm up to the idea of Hugo a few weeks ago and tried extremely hard to avoid every single review from the NYFF screening, and any subsequent screenings (despite dutifully gathering the links for the Roundup).
What I saw on that screen (and in front of it) was magic. The kind of magic to which you can only reply, "guh", while sitting slackjawed in amazement. It was the same magic that Melies coaxed out of his camera 100 years ago, just in an extra dimension. How Melies would have loved this extra dimension. It was such a soft, deft, often subtle use of the medium, one that ran contrary to every other 3D film I've seen in the past. There was no shit flying in your face, despite many opportunities -- none greater than the train stopping short of young Hugo (Asa Butterfield).
Any other director would have engineered that shot to stop three inches away from your nose. It would have been irresistible. It might even have been a good use of 3D on its own, but because of the hacks thrusting knives and tree spores (or whatever that shit in Avatar was) into our faces in decades' worth of mostly worthless 3D films before, it would have felt cheap. Scorsese knows this. Of course he knows this.
The third dimension was used very honestly in Hugo, most of it employed for depth and richness, to bring the attics and boulevards of '20s Paris alive like a pulsating impressionist painting. As we saw earlier in the year in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, Paris in the '20s didn't necessarily need an extra dimension, but it works just as well with it as without.
Hugo and Midnight in Paris are both magic stories, but Midnight in Paris is a grounded magic story. Only the lucky few characters can see the magic, can ride the magic back in time. Hugo is all-encompasssing magic, a world where even the characters who fight mightily against magic's existence find it in the end. To me, that deserves a magical mode of storytelling. Scorsese and DP Bob Richardson, wizards both, gave it that, bringing the world of a poor little clock-maker boy to life while also recalling the glossy eyed wonder of you get as a kid reading a pop-up book.
The difference, as far as I can tell, between Hugo and other 3D movies is that the 3D is the magic in most 3D films, while the story is the magic in Hugo. It's such a simple concept: everything must serve the story, the story must have no master. It's not exactly a problem limited to 3D, but it is the cancer that has permeated too much of the process.
The big issues people have with Hugo both seem born from the same germ, and boil down to personal taste. The length, for one, the subject for another, make Hugo not a children's movie. It's an $85m art film for cinephiles, disappointing to people who don't care about film history and just want a 3D romp.
I find it hard to accept either of these arguments, but then again I'm a cinephile whose bladder can comfortably withstand the 2 1/2 hours from sitting down to credits ending.
The film is long for a kid's movie, yes. But they said the same thing about Harry Potter, both the books and the movies, and kids did okay with processing those. It does cater to cinephiles. But kids are cinephiles too, even if they don't know it yet. Does the film drag? Does it sag in the middle? I didn't feel like it did. I wouldn't have touched a second of the film, personally. The rhythm and pace the film rolled along at seemed perfect to me.
I can't even figure out on my own which bits people weren't in love with. Was it the backstory of Melies' erstwhile film empire? The fact that a film historian (Michael Stuhlbarg) became a key character? Did Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) not kick enough ass, like Hit Girl? I thought she did. Was it the Station Inspector's (Sasha Baron Cohen) subplot with Lisette (Emily Mortimer)? Was it the subplot between Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) and Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour)? (By the way, how would Hagrid feel about Uncle Vernon macking on his squeeze, Madame Maxime? Scandalous, Marty!) Or was it simply the fact that it was billed as an action-adventure type of film and didn't really have much in the way of either in the way we are used to. The film was too contained within the station, maybe, and spent too much time with Hugo winding clocks instead of hanging off of them.
Do I choose to simply ignore Hugo's problems as they stare me in the face, getting close and closer like the Station Inspector? Will it end up on the list of flawed masterpieces instead of the list of masterpieces? Time will tell.
Still, this doesn't make me a convert to 3D. It took a perfect use of the format to make me feel like this, and there are very few directors working today who have the knowing hand of Martin Scorsese. You don't have to look any further than the trailer set before the film, honestly: Titanic 3D looked awful, like a cash grab. Star Wars 3D looked awful, like a cash grab, but at leas they're also re-releasing in 2D. Even Spielberg's Tintin 3D looked pointless in its 3D use.
But from those first flakes of snow that softly fell by the screen, Hugo just looked different. You felt like you were in safe hands. Those snowflakes seemed to whisper in your ear, "don't worry, I'm not going to fuck this up."
And he didn't fuck it up. Thank God.