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There is very little one can say to truly capture the visual splendor of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” It is a breathtaking masterpiece, at once homage to early cinema innovation, and at the same time a harbinger of the vast possibilities still ahead of us.

“Hugo” is about an orphan boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives within the walls of a train station, winding the clocks so no one will notice that his alcoholic uncle caretaker is no longer around to do the job. His troubles include a nosy, orphan-hating station captain played with pitch-perfect wit by Sacha Baron Cohen, an angry toy shop clerk played with sad subtext by Ben Kingsley in what should be an Oscar nominated performance, a pretty girl with an affinity for literature played with plucky charm by Chloe Grace Moretz, and a mystery to solve which involves an automaton that Hugo and his father (Jude Law) were repairing before his dad’s untimely death. The mystery that unfolds leads the story into unexpected territory: the genius of a forgotten early cinema pioneer.

In this tale of artistry and craft, Scorsese uses 3D technology to highlight the themes of the film, rather than cheap gimmickry (as is so often the case with 3D.) The beginning sequence is so breathtaking that the audience literally gasped when the title “HUGO” finally appeared in large letters on the screen. One wonders, if that’s just the opening sequence, what can we be in store for next? A lot.

The beauty of the Paris train station circa 1930s and its quaint shops are captured with such grace and charm that one feels transported. The tracking shots inside the inner workings of the clock tower gears and the gritty walls where Hugo resides juxtapose a darker, less colorful world. The detail with which Scorsese handles scale is mind-boggling. For example, the angles of the Eiffel Tower are spatially accurate according to Hugo’s position in the tower and the city. The loving care given to every detail in the film is enough to bring tears alone. But it’s in Scorsese’s homage to the pioneers of cinema that the film really finds its heart. These sequences are shared with such childlike awe and whimsy, that only the coldest of hearts could remain unmoved.

Mr. Scorsese has some fun with the audience, too, by introducing classic scenes from early cinema and (lest we feel superior in our modern sophistication) recreating them within the story itself using current technology to illustrate how effective those scenes still are. We really aren’t all that different from audiences who were privileged to experience cinema in its infancy, and thanks to Mr. Scorsese, we are now able to experience some of that awe and wonder today, as if watching a movie for the first time.

I’m a purist. An avid 3D hater. And yet I beseech you to see this film in theaters in 3D. Do not wait for the DVD. It will not be the same film. This movie deserves to be seen as the artist(s) intended, in all its fanciful, ambitious glory.

“Hugo” is a spectacular masterpiece for all ages and forever.

5 of 5 stars

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  1. Mike H

    I enjoyed the core subject of the film–the life and films of Georges Melies and Scorsese’s passion for film preservation. Though the performances of Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle were great, I did not find myself interested in their characters. I wish the entire film had been devoted to the life of Melies and omitted the young lead characters altogether. Sacha Baron Cohen is a great actor. I think if casting directors use him properly, he may well be the next Peter Sellers, however, in “Hugo,” his character was a bit annoying and too silly. “Hugo” is a good movie, but it would have been better if it had focused only on Kingsley as Georges Melies.

  2. carlaB

    My husband said the same thing as the commentor above but my view is that a biographical film of Melies would have played at independent theaters to adult film fans who already know about the classics. Embedding that stuff in a holiday family movie means that the next generation will get acquaintede to the filsm of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplan. As we were leaving, my daughter asked who was the man hanging from the clock in black and white. We went home and watched youtube clips of silent movies. That wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t watched Hugo.
    I’m also glad to be able to take her to see something besided the usual mindless slop served up for kids which is usually loud dumb movies that just are so hard for me to sit through.
    I loved Sasha in this movie!! He was old fashioned funny and my favorite part of the movie.
    I will see this again and again.
    Why is Johnny Dep tagged here?

  3. Donna White

    Hi Carla,
    Johnny Depp’s production company (Infinitum Nihil) bought the film rights to the book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick. Depp produced the film and his manager/sister Christi Dembrowski has Exec Producer credit. I’m pretty sure this film will get an Oscar nom for Best Picture. It will be interesting to see if he shows up to represent the film with the other producers. I probably should have mentioned some of that in my review. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  4. Chris

    I would like to also hail Sasha Baron Cohen’s actually rather understated performance. I smiled each time he returned to the screen in his blue station captain getup. I’m thinking he may be a comic talent on par with some of the early pioneers referenced in the film (as well as Sellers). And nice that Scorsese included Harold Lloyd (the guy on the clock), the 3rd sometimes forgotten member of the silent comedy holy trinity. A good sign of the visual success of this pic for me is that I could not really tell where the CGI effects began or ended – it is so seamlessly interwoven with the overall visual style and story. This is in contrast to much other current use of CGI, which frankly I think will be laughed at years hence for its distracting obviousness. While I loved the film for its visual splendor and its homage to film past, I will add that it did not register too much with me emotionally. I didn’t lose myself in the plot, the discovery of Melies’ secret past. But I sure loved seeing it recreated.
    Thanks for the great review!