Judge Jim Thomas once maintained the clocks at the Newark bus station. Nothing was on time.
"If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around: This is where they're made."
The phrase "movie magic" has been bandied about so often that it has become meaningless, just another empty phrase run into the ground. However, there was a time when movie magic was more than a cliché: when the movies were new, when literally no one had ever seen anything like it—not even the people making the movies. Georges Méliès was one of those early pioneers. Captivated, he built his own studio, even his own camera and projector, and promptly redefined the notion of what was possible with the new medium—and then he disappeared into obscurity.
Paramount now brings us Hugo (Blu-ray). Based on the children's novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, the movie is Martin Scorsese's tribute to the man who inspired so many filmmakers.
Facts of the Case
Behind the walls of a Parisian train station hidden apartment lives young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, Nanny McFee Returns). From within the walls of the station, Hugo watches life unfold below. Brought to the station by his drunken uncle after his father (Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes) was killed in a museum fire, Hugo has learned how to maintain all the clocks in the station. Now, he moves around within the walls of the station, winding the clocks and keeping an eye on things, occasionally emerging to swipe the odd pastry, being careful to steer clear of the watchful gaze of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat).
In his spare time, Hugo works on repairing an automaton, a robot-like device that he and his father had been working on before his death. Convinced that the automaton carries a message from his father, Hugo is obsessed with fixing it, occasionally pilfering parts from the toy shop. One day, he is a little too slow and is caught by the wily toymaker (Ben Kingsley, Sneakers). Hugo escapes, but the toymaker confiscates his notebook, which has all the drawings and notes Hugo's father made while working on the automaton. Desperate to recover the notebook, Hugo enlists the help of the toymaker's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz, Let Me In). Through their budding friendship, they unlock the automaton's secret. Their discovery will open up new worlds for them, and, with a little luck, they just might help her godfather regain a treasure most precious—his dreams.
There are really two separate stories within Hugo: The tale of Hugo, and the life of Georges Méliès. The good news is Scorsese tells both stories brilliantly. From the opening shot—a long CGI tracking shot that transitions into one of Scorsese's patented tracking shots through the train station, the visual magic sucks you into Hugo's world. For the first hour, the film is enchanting, with Hugo weaving through the train station as little vignettes unfold before him. It is a virtuoso performance from a director who has had so many such moments scattered through his career.
There was more than a little skepticism when Scorsese announced that he would be shooting the movie in 3-D. However, the results demonstrate just how effective 3-D can be—when it's used as an artistic tool, not a marketing gimmick. This disc is the 2-D version (a 3-D Blu-ray is also being released), but you can see how Scorsese frames his shots so that they are captivating in two dimensions—3-D simply accentuates them. In fact, Scorsese comments in the making-of featurette that they tweaked the 3-D effect throughout the movie, punching it up or dialing it back some to produce exactly the effect he wanted.
Hugo really isn't what you would call an actor's movie; that said, the actors acquit themselves quite well. Butterman and Moretz offer nuanced performances as Hugo and Isabella, and they have solid chemistry. The veterans used for the minor roles are a treat, particularly Christopher Lee as Monsieur Labisse, a bookseller who always seems to know what information his patrons are really looking for. If Asa Butterman acts as the movie's heart, then Ben Kingsley is its soul. Kingsley is always watchable, whether he's the older man, all but broken, or the younger man, full of hope and promise.
Trivia: The movie's a small Harry Potter reunion, with Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon), Frances de la Tour (Madame Maxine), and Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy).
Hugo picked up Oscars for cinematography, art direction, visual effects, sound editing, and sound. Thanks to the tech whizzes at Paramount, this disc will convince you that those awards were well-deserved. The 1080p MPEG-4 AVC-encoded video is razor sharp with colors that light up the screen. Details pop of the screen, particularly the various mechanisms that were shot in tight closeups. Note: The aspect ratio of 1.78:1 was adjusted from its original 1.85:1. The DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio mix is superlative—sound comes from everywhere, side to side, in front, behind, even above and below. We're talking reference quality for both audio and video.
The extras are somewhat superficial. The anchor is "Shooting the Moon," a making-of featurette. "The Cinemagician" discusses the life of Georges Melies—it basically covers the same information as the movie itself. "The Mechanical Man" looks at the history of automata in general and the one used in the movie. "Big Effects, Small Scale" looks at the execution of the derailed train wreck sequence. All of those are good enough; the "interview" with Sacha Baron Cohen is really Cohen mugging for the camera. DVD and digital copies of the film are also included. The film is such a technical achievement, though, that you really expect more material on the technical side of things, whether it's the production design of Scorsese's use of 3-D.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While everything about the production is magic, the story itself can't quite support all of the trappings. There is a sense of magical wonderment in the first part of the movie, but in the latter half of the film, Scorsese is more interested in documenting the life and career of Georges Méliès than in continuing the story of Hugo. The Méliès section is filmed with the same care as the first part of the movie, but it feels like a different film. Up until that point, we're emotionally investing in Hugo, but then, through a narrative sleight of hand, Méliès becomes the film's focus. Hugo fades into the background, save for a single, predictable sequence at the end. It doesn't derail the movie, mind you—it isn't as jarring a shift as Happy Feet suddenly turning into an environmental tract—but the narrative break is just noticeable enough. Additional development of the growing bond between Hugo and Méliès might have bridged the two narratives more effectively.
Despite a case of multiple personality syndrome, Hugo is a winning tale of a young boy clinging to hope and an old man who has lost hope. It's a wonderful example of movie magic that slowly transforms into a literal celebration of that magic. While the transformation isn't as clean as it could be, the film remains a glorious valentine to the movies in general and Georges Méliès in particular.
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