HUGO is a film that works beautifully despite a dubious recipe: Martin Scorsese directing what appeared to be a NARNIA-like children's fantasy, liberal use of CGI (the entire Paris landscape, in fact), Sacha Baron-Cohen in a sizable role, and all of it in 3-D. I did not get to see this movie in 3-D. I caught a screening (the only one that day) after it was re-released post multiple Oscar noms last week. Everything I read about this film raved of the magnificant use of three dimensions, of depth of field. None other than James Cameron, who invented special 3-D cameras for his AVATAR, declared HUGO utilized 3-D better than any other movie he'd seen.
I am a bit disappointed after the fact that I saw Scorsese's film in mere two dimensions, but it was such a delight that such a thought never nagged me, not even once in a just over 2 hour running time. The opening shot, a flyover zoom of a bustling late 1920s/early '30s Paris right on down past passengers in the Gare Montparness railway station suggested the sort of restless energy seen in many Scorseses of the past. As we are introduced to Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a 12-year old who, with his uncle, winds and maintains the several clocks in the station, gigantic gears fill the screen, evoking memories of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Jacques Tati. Behind the walls of the station is a great labyrinth of machinery that also reminded me of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS. As the plot of HUGO unfolds, we'll find that these homages were no accident.
Hugo comes to live behind the station after his father, an inventor (Jude Law, seen in brief flashbacks) perishes in a museum fire. The boy manages to save from the blaze a mechanical bust of a man - an automaton, which his father was building/restoring. Also, a book of blueprints. Hugo spends his days thieving parts (and croissants) in efforts to complete the machine, to see what will come forth from the ink in the pen it is clutching. After the blueprints are confiscated by a crusty, yet sad toy shop proprieter (Ben Kingsley), and Hugo meets up with the old man's goddaughter (Chloë Grace Moretz), it is revealed that a heart-shaped key will be the last piece to unlock the mystery of the automaton. When that moment arrives, we will also learn what this movie is really about.
I don't want to ruin it for you, but.... I can say that HUGO does not develop like any other family-friendly fantasy I've seen. There are not fantastic creatures of the sea or sky or well coiffed Flavor of the Moment young actors brandishing swords. There are masterfully rendered chases (on foot) and runaway trains. But this is really a movie about...the love of movies. HUGO's plot will develop to involve the earliest days of the French film industry and the love and ingenuity that went into each film. This is absolutely Scorsese's domain, his own reverence and activism for film preservation quite well known. His enthusiasm for the films of yesteryear translates into his own - he makes HUGO a loving ode to the medium.
That means that many will feel misled and left cold by HUGO, a film whose advertising campaign does indeed make it look like yet another standard issue fairy tale. It is anything but. I want you to discover the events of the film on your own. I don't normally write reviews to simply advertise a film and get you to spend $ but in this case, it would be time and money very well spent. HUGO's plot blossoms into something quite unexpected, but absolutely beautiful. You don't have to be a film buff to love it, but it definitely helps. I'm hoping to catch a showing in 3-D; I may have to up my rating to "nearly perfect" then.
P.S. - I forever pick on Sacha Baron Cohen because of his turns in the crudefests BORAT and BRUNO (though both are hysterically funny). However, he does a nice job here as the ominous Station Inspector Gustav, always ready to snatch deviate children and send them to an orphanage. That his character is partially crippled allows for some gentle (never cruel) comedy, also in some ways reminiscent of the silent clowns.
P.P.S. - You'll note that Johnny Depp is one of the producers of HUGO. I can see why he would be attracted to this project. He would be right at home in such a film. So would Tim Burton, for that matter....