As the 3D debate rages on, more directors are taking up the medium even as the public seems to be rejecting it. James Cameron promised great things with Avatar but delivered an unremarkable animated tale whose 3D was as flat as its characters. The numerous 3D films that flooded cineplexes in its aftermath did little to bolster confidence in the medium and the diminishing returns belie its usefulness as a legitimate filmmaking tool.
Martin Scorsese is the latest — arguably the first — auteur to try to utilize the technology as pertinent to storytelling with the childhood fantasy Hugo. Indeed, the film is less about the titular orphan and more an ambitious defense of 3D itself. Of course, one has to endure over 30 minutes of conventional Dickensian hokum before Scorsese none-too-subtley reveals his true intention, juxtaposing the budding 19th-century film medium, and the initial resistance to it, with the current 3D renaissance. You see, at the time movies were treated as little more than a novelty, a passing fad, a frivolous innovation. Get the picture? Scorsese wants to convince us that 3D is as steadfast as hakuna matata, and there are moments when you almost believe he has.The train station wherein the bulk of the story unfolds is a busy, clustered and cluttered environment overrun with passengers jockeying and jostling one another as they criss-cross the screen and the 3D characters do, at times, seem to engulf the audience. Ubiquitary clouds of steam hover just beyond the picture plane, obscuring the screen itself. Spires of film projector light penetrate the auditorium. Even Sacha Baron Cohen’s face at one point becomes its own 3D effect, slowly filling the frame, then emerging from it, his Inspector Gustav grilling Hugo as to why the station’s security dog seems to dislike various synonyms for the young boy’s own visage.
But must these elements be viewed in 3D to enhance the storytelling? I found myself wondering if Cohen’s Clouseau-like questioning would be any less comically menacing if his face were straining against the confines of a flat screen. Would the train station seem any less crowded if the patrons weren’t walking across rows of theatre seats? Would the steam be any less palpable drifting across the screen instead of the auditorium? From a storytelling perspective, it appears superfluous. In fact, some of the initial sequences are so busy that the experience becomes unpleasant, the eyes straining to follow the action across ever-changing planes. Many of the film’s best images are those which are wholly independent of the 3D technology: swirling snow without the station becomes drifting dust within; the local bookstore with its shelves, stacks, trees of books that seem to form its very framework; the films of Georges Méliès, upon whom the foundation of Hugo is built, painstakingly recreated in gleeful flashback. These sequences seem to have very little 3D and are no less beautiful for it. This raises the question, if the 3D is noticeable does it become a distraction? If it isn’t, why bother?
Scorsese is clearly enamored with filmmaking and, though Ben Kingsley may be charged with portraying the pioneering filmmaker, it is Scorsese himself who pours his soul into Méliès’ giddy awe. Asa Butterfield, with blue eyes wide and watchful, nearly breaks your heart as the little orphan clinging to the mechanical vestiges of his late father’s work. Chloë Grace Moretz continues to mature into a fine young actress, and Cohen proves he can do more than mockumentary schtick, taking his Pirelli from Sweeney Todd and injecting him with just the right amount of Peter Sellers.
The real star of the film, however, is film itself and Hugo is more of an experiment than a movie. Perhaps better than The Jazz Singer but far less relevant, it is nonetheless a charming love letter to motion pictures, with Scorsese riding a tightrope between filmmaking and sermonizing, even so far as having Méliès lament the loss of thousands of films destroyed only to be reincarnated as ladies’ shoes, because why just preach about technology when you can pitch film preservation at the same time?
Goes great with: Singin’ in the Rain (1952). The similarities are obvious but Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen at least knew how to pile on the spectacle to distract from a fairly benign story that traces the ascent of sound in motion pictures. Jean Hagen’s hilarious Lina Lamont is worth the viewing alone. Oh, and there’s singing and dancing.
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