Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/06/11 15:40:38

"Scorsese takes to 3D family fare like a natural."
5 stars (Awesome)

How good is "Hugo"? It's repeat-viewing good. In fact, it's repeat-viewing-in-3D-on-the-premium-(that-is-to-say-expensive)-screen-while-it's-still-there good. Now, certainly, part of the reason I did so was the lack of new films opened during its second weekend of release, but this is the one I wanted to see again, even if it cost $13.50. A high price, but it earns the money.

The movie follows Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphaned boy who lives in the walls of a Paris train station and keeps the clocks wound while dodging the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). He also has another project, rebuilding an automaton that his father (Jude Law) discovered in a museum. For that he steals parts from the booth of a toymaker (Ben Kingsley), who becomes furious not just because of the theft, but upon seeing the boy's notebook, which he takes home to burn. Hugo appeals to the toymaker's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a bookish but curious girl about his own age, to help him get it back.

The kids have no idea what sort of mystery they'll uncover, and I'm loath to spoil it even though it's a subject that will pique the interest of some potential customers. Suffice it to say that this is a Martin Scorsese movie, but not the type where he focuses on crime and criminals; rather, this is the Scorsese who so loves the movies and their history that he took painstaking care to duplicate the look of film in each era in The Aviator. That Hugo and Isabelle will sneak into a movie is a given (and given that it's 1930 and Hugo spends a great deal of time in and around clock faces, the choice of which one is also clear), but when they talk of movies being dreams given life, it's quite literal: Hugo's daydreams and flashbacks are not announced with a musical cue or fade, but with the light flickering and the sound of film passing through a projector.

Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan (adapting an illustrated novel by Brian Selznick) don't get too arcane with the symbolism, though - they're well aware that they are making a movie for kids to enjoy as well as adults. For people who haven't worked to that audience much at all, they're quite good at making something kid-friendly with being patronizing at all. Many movies for presumed adults could benefit from looking at how Hugo dispenses with a lot of unnecessary set-up, trusting the audience to understand what is important the other characters with Hugo and about understand Hugo's present before showing us a bit of his past. The filmmakers also let Hugo and Isabelle discover their things step-by-step and give characters characters important emotional moments earlier than usual. It's a style that initially seems like it may be too slow for kids (and, let's be honest, a lot of adult moviegoers these days), but again, it's about trust: Rather than frantically bouncing between subplots and set pieces to create the illusion of activity before a bloated finale that needs to do too much, Hugo has important things happening all the way through, with room to breathe.

The cast takes great advantage of this. Asa Butterfield has a lot of movie to carry on his young shoulders - there are maybe two or three scenes outside of narrated flashbacks where perspective shifts away from Hugo - and he's really wonderful. He's got just the right sort of anger at the world for the circumstances that he starts in, and he's quite good at shifting to wonder or sadness as needed. Ben Kingsley brings many of the same emotions to his role, but he's naturally more worn down. He doesn't lash out when the world finds a new way to be cruel, but collapses a little bit more, and there's a hint of mistrust when things start to go his way.

There's another broken man around in the form of Gustav, the station inspector - literally broken, in this case, and it's an impressive little performance by Sacha Baron Cohen, doing what starts out as a typical funny-voiced shtick before the character decides to be earnest and straightforward. Chloe Grace Moretz is good enough to take for granted is impressive, as a lot of child actresses would have made Isabelle a showy role, but she makes the "precocious but sheltered girl" work without becoming broad. And then there's a whole mess of people giving perfect performances in supporting roles, with Helen McCrory, Jude Law, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, and the regal Christopher Lee each doing the little things wonderfully in their roles.

The crew is as impressive as the cast; there's not a small detail anywhere on screen that doesn't seem well attended-to. It would not take too much to make the automaton seem too human or too commonplace, for instance, and Hugo always looks exactly as grimy as his emotional state dictates without shoving this in the audience's face. And future 3D filmmakers should take a lot of notes on what Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson do with the tools. It's not just great contrast of foreground and background, but recognizing that the screen is now a box and defining the edges of it . And watch how, in a scene where Gustav is trying to intimidate Hugo, the filmmakers carefully have him break the plane of the screen, leaning in just enough that the audience feels like he's getting into their personal space.

Certainly, the well-executed 3D is a big part of the reason why I wanted to see it again on this sort of screen while I had the opportunity. More important, though, is the movie is just good in every way it can be. I recommend it whole-heartedly.

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