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.