Film Review: ‘Hugo’


The 3D debate looks set to be blown wide open with the release of Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), the renowned filmmaker’s first attempt at utilising this new technology. Alongside Wim Wenders’ Pina and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (also both released earlier this year), Scorsese’s Hugo is perhaps the first true example of how 3D can be used to heighten the cinematic experience, whilst simultaneously serving as a love letter to the medium’s rich history.

Based on Brian Selznick’s New York Times bestseller The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese throws his audience into a magical-realist presentation of a wintry 1930s Paris, complete with glittering Eiffel Tower (naturally), smoke-billowing rooftops and pixel-perfect architecture. After a mesmerising long shot taking us from the snow-filled skies into a train station’s clock tower, we are introduced to our plucky, titular protagonist Hugo Cabret (an impressive star performance from young actor Asa Butterfield).

After the untimely death of his loving, somewhat eccentric father (Jude Law), Hugo is taken in as an apprentice to his alcoholic Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), helping the drunkard to maintain and repair the station’s many ornate clocks. Swiftly left on his own to fend for himself, Hugo is given the run of his new, unorthodox home where he meets disgruntled toy shop owner Georges (Ben Kingsley) who – Hugo soon discovers – may be more than he initially appears.

For those uninitiated with Selznick’s enjoyable children’s tale, Scorsese’s Hugo stands up as not only a loving literary adaptation, but also as a loving ode to the moving image – with which the American master is clearly besotted. Films about film are often dismissed by some as mere ‘Oscar fodder’, but alongside Michel Hazanavicius’ sublime silent era homage The Artist (2011) – which remains far the superior film – Scorsese’s Hugo doesn’t appear to have a cynical bone in its well-oiled, beautifully crafted body – think Mark Cousins’ More4 series The Story of Film but meant for younger, more mainstream audiences.

It’s probably worth questioning whether Hugo functions wholly as a children’s film, and levels of enjoyment will probably vary from child to child. However, there should be enough visual humour (predominantly from Cohen) and entertaining set pieces to keep even the most attention-deficient youngster stimulated for the film’s 122 minute run time.

Perhaps more importantly, Hugo is arguably the first valid example of a 3D film that checks all the boxes, using the technology to enhance the on-screen action rather than for a few cheap thrills. As Hugo and Georges’ god-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) dig deeper into the enigmatic old man’s past, they are both propelled into the world of the ‘movies’, from the early cinematic oddities of the Lumière brothers through to the surrealist flights of fancy produced by Méliès (it’s hardly a spoiler to state that Méliès is intrinsic to the film’s story).

Just as the Lumières and Méliès were cinematic pioneers of their time, it is perhaps Scorsese – not James Cameron and his ‘game changing’ blockbuster Avatar (2009) – that will be remembered as one of the first artists to truly recognise the potential of 3D filmmaking. Regardless, whether young or old, Hugo remains an arresting, heartwarming delight and one of the must-see films of the festive period.

Daniel Green