Mixed Tape Reviews: Underwatched ‘Hugo’ shines

Dec 7th, 2011 | By | Category: Feature, Sights
Still from the 2011 film "Hugo"

Ben Kingsley and Asa Butterfield in "Hugo"

Here’s something special. With Hugo, Martin Scorsese directs his first family movie, which he also co-opts into an indoctrination tool to convert young children into admirers of silent film.

And while his ode to the origins of cinema are clearly the scenes Scorsese savors the most, that doesn’t mean he pays mere lip service to the rest of the story.

Hugo is based on the superiorly-titled children’s picture novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabaret” by Brian Selznick. The book, which earned Selznick the Caldecott Medal in 2008, follows the childhood adventures of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an abandoned orphan and thief who lives in the catacombs of a train station in Paris during the 1910’s.

At the core of his life is the mystery surrounding a metal automaton man his late father discovered in a museum. The automaton supposedly has the ability to write, and Hugo believes if he can fix it, this metal man will reveal a secret message from his deceased father. Bringing Hugo closer to unraveling this mystery is a bitter old toyshop owner named George (Ben Kingsley) and his more helpful goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz). George initially despises Hugo for snatching toy parts from his store counter, but Isabelle enlists herself to aid Hugo’s cause only to find that the mystery of the automaton ties closely to her own life as well as one of the great and most neglected pioneers from the silent era of film.

A recurring theme throughout the film is abandonment, and what it can do to people’s hearts and minds if left unrepaired. Hugo as well as George lead broken lives of shattered promises. One had a father who loved him dearly until he died, the other had fortune and fame until they were snatched from him by a global twist of fate. George’s heart is far more hardened and cruel than Hugo’s, but with his life already given to thievery, it’s clear Hugo’s heart will harden, too, if no one intervenes.

The film boasts the best use of 3-D I have ever seen. Taking lessons away from James Cameron’s Avatar, Scorsese never pokes viewers in the eye or uses the technology for cheap theme park ride thrills. Instead, he employs 3-D to enhance the beauty and depth of his canvas. Especially gorgeous scenes where snow falls all around the characters and the scene where Hugo dangles from the minute hand of a large clock tower carries a visceral thrill akin to the first time audiences watched the Lumiere Brothers’ Arrival of a Train in 1895.

I find it rather apt that in a 3-D movie, Scorsese has many references to early silent films. Reason being, like filmmaking during the silent era, 3-D is still in its infancy. Some might argue that 3-D will remain suspended in its infancy if studios continue to exploit it for poke-you-in-the-eye schlock and cheapie up-converts of 2-D movies. Most 3-D films exist as mere parlor tricks instead of attempts at creating a genuine narrative, which is what Scorsese so clearly aims for with Hugo. Sadly, I am not too sure that Hugo will be enough to save this current era of 3-D filmmaking from another cyclical wave of extinction.

Looking at the box-office numbers for Hugo, I was disappointed to find out it made only $25 million in two weeks. With a budget circling $150 million, it will most certainly be considered a dud. None of the blame for this should fall on Scorsese, who made a fantastic movie as well as one of the best live-action family movies of the last decade. Instead, we should blame theaters for allocating it on fewer 3-D screens than Arthur Christmas as well as the studio for opening it on the same day as The Muppets. Also, who thought it would be a good idea to name the film Hugo instead of the book’s original title “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”? The latter sparks a sense of wonder and old-timey mystery while the former sounds like the biopic of a French author who enjoyed writing long novels. They might as well have placed an electric fence around the theater.

To see such a good film get so mistreated, so mismanaged by its studio has reduced me to do something I don’t normally do: Beg people to see a movie. Please watch Hugo. Don’t let it be a casualty of a studio that had no idea what it was doing. That it has grossed but a 10th of what the latest Twilight movie did is ridiculous.

P.S. It was just confirmed that Hugo star Asa Butterfield is set to play the lead role in the upcoming adaptation of “Ender’s Game” by Greensboro-based author Orson Scott Card. If that’s the case, we can at least rest easy knowing the lead role was well cast. Butterfield has the chops, and should make for a perfect (albeit slightly older than he was in the book) Ender Wiggin.

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