The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Hugo 3D (US 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 3 January 2012

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) with the mechanical automaton

I’m glad that I saw Hugo in 3D on a big screen and I enjoyed watching the film despite the effort of stopping those glasses sliding down my nose. On reflection, however, I’ve got mixed feelings about the enterprise. I was impressed by Martin Scorsese’s use of 3D as a medium and the ways in which he used the format to explore/promote the use of special effects in cinema – including the bizarre presentation of clips from the films of Georges Méliès in 3D! But I’m not sure that I like it as a format. It makes the cinema feel like a theatre with the over-dramatic sense of separation of characters in the depth of presentation. I much prefer the use of deep focus and staging in depth. This occurred to me in a scene which included an older man, a small boy and snowflakes – surely a reference to the famous ‘staging in depth’ scene in Citizen Kane?

Hugo is stuffed with references, making it an over-rich feast for cinephiles. But this is ostensibly a film for children (and their parents). We watched the film at the end of its run in a large multiplex auditorium with only a modest audience. The children were quiet throughout the film – which I take to mean that they were engrossed as I suspect that they would have complained if they were bored. At the end, eavesdropping on a couple of families, I understood that they had quietly enjoyed the film – but it wasn’t the film that they were expecting. I’m not competent to judge what makes a good children’s film but I think Hugo probably works best as a spectacle rather than as a story. I thought that the script was weak in places and some scenes lacked the spark that they might have had if there wasn’t so much focus on the beautiful matte paintings and 3D staging. I enjoyed all the performances, although Sacha Baron Cohen was irritating – but I can see why others found him entertaining. The promotional materials keep telling us that this is Scorsese’s ‘first family film’, but it does have several elements in common with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), one of Marty’s lesser-known movies. And if Kundun is included, he has made three films with important younger characters – mercifully not treating them with the sugary confections of Spielberg. He also cast a young Jody Foster in a very different kind of film – Taxi Driver.

Hugo is a long film but it doesn’t deliver as much narrative as I expected. There seem to be three parts to the film. One is a story about Hugo himself and how as an orphan he needs to keep out of the clutches of the authorities in Paris in the late 1920s – personified by the ‘Station Inspector’ (Baron Cohen), a war veteran who was himself an orphan and who now seems obsessed with rounding up waifs and strays who stray onto his patch. The second is a mystery in which Hugo and a slightly older girl, Isabelle, eventually join forces to discover the secret of the automaton which Hugo’s father was attempting to repair when he died. These two narrative strands combine to provide the ‘action adventure’ material in the film. But a fair amount of the final third of the film is taken up with what is essentially a rather conventional, but brilliantly presented visual essay on early cinema delivered by Scorsese – chair of the World Cinema Foundation and prime conservator of great films. This offers a different kind of spectacle in 3D, didactic perhaps but I’m sure we are all pleased that future film audiences are shown clips from films up to 1930 in the correct ratio and colours (i.e. with all the correct tinting of prints).

Hugo is adapted (by John Logan) from a book by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2008). Selznick is a designer and illustrator as well as an author and there is a link on this website that shows some of the book’s many illustrations. This demonstrates very well that many of what might be assumed to be Scorsese’s ideas for framings and compositions are taken directly from the book. This doesn’t detract from Scorsese’s artistic achievement but it does tend to reinforce the idea that the whole project is driven by a desire to recreate a Parisian environment of the late 1920s, possibly at the expense of a coherent narrative. I’ll have to watch it again, but there were aspects of the chronology of the story that didn’t make sense to me and there are weaknesses of characterisation. Chloë Grace Moretz as Isabelleis rather wasted I think as the character is given little to do. I just wonder if Marty was so entranced by the excitement generated by 3D and the enormous sets, real and virtual, he had to play with that he forgot about the story. This is surprising since he must have thought about some of the other films that aspects of the story were likely to provoke in his imagination. Two that struck me were the boy’s constant observation of the station crowds which reminded me of the boy looking at the ‘forbidden’ in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (UK 1959) (one of Scorsese’s favourites) and the ‘underworld’ existence in Paris which reminded me of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Hugo is a children’s film but that doesn’t mean it has to lose the possibility of a complex and intriguing story.

There are some very polarised reviews of Hugo, especially in North America. I don’t think it is the masterpiece that deserves to win awards but neither is it the flop that commits the sin of boredom. I think that Scorsese spent too much money ($150 million plus?) but at least you can see it on screen. I’d urge any doubters to see the film in 3D in a big screen cinema if you can still find it. It’s perhaps the first production to really explore what 3D in modern cinema can do.

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5 Responses to “Hugo 3D (US 2011)”

  1. Des1967 said

    I had intended to see it but unfortunately the 3D version stopped playing where I live and I had to make do with with 2D. I share many of Roy’s reactions, especially regarding the weakness of the narrative. There’s an excellent piece by Kirsten Thomson in which she analyses the narrative in terms of her famous “four-act structure” set out in ‘Storytelling in the New Hollywood

    http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2011/12/07/hugo-scorseses-birthday-present-to-georges-melies/print/

    • Roy Stafford said

      Thanks for the link, Des. It’s a scholarly piece with several interesting observations and lots of useful information but I’m not sure that I’m convinced by her narrative analysis. Having said that, she’s seen the film twice which always helps.

      I forgot to add in my original post that what really irritated me in Hugo was the constant use of ‘movies’ to refer to ‘films’ in all the dialogue. Do you have any idea how the French would have referred to films at this time? Is it too romantic to suggest that they used a term akin to ‘flicks’ in British English?

      • des1967 said

        Yes, the narrative structure doesn’t quite fit the model.

        Agree about “movies”, very irritating. Not sure of a term other than “film” (pron. “feelm”) but will ask.However, there was a term “le cinoche” for cinema (the place not the concept).

  2. keith1942 said

    When I realised that this film included clips from Melies I opted to see it in 2D, I cannot imagine what the 3D does to early film?
    Roy’s and Des’ comments are apt. And the film is definitely inaccurate; though it plays with the lack of records on Melies.
    I should say that I prefer its treatment of Early Cinema to that of The Artist.

    • I’m not sure if there is any specific 3D element to the clips themselves – although there is in the re-staging of the scenes being shot. I’d need to see the 3D version again to look careful at those scenes in which the clips are shown. I understand why you are so wary but I think watching the film in 3D was overall a worthwhile experience.

      As a footnote, its depressing that Hugo has failed to reach a blockbuster audience – I don’t know if all the Oscar noms will boost its box office significantly.

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