It took Scorsese to make 3D relevant, and man, did he do it in grand style with “Hugo,” a dazzling, beautiful film that is certainly among the best of a weak 2011.
“Hugo” is the story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a young orphan living in a train station in Paris in the 1930s. His father (Jude Law) died in a fire, and his uncle (Ray Winstone), a drunk who takes him in, has disappeared, leaving him alone to care for the station and his one remaining link to his father — a mysterious “automaton,” a robotic boy who doesn’t work.
The young scamp is forced to steal to survive and collect parts to repair his automaton, most of which he steals from a businessman (Ben Kingsley) in the station who sells mechanical toys. Hugo is also somewhat infatuated with a plucky girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) who roams the station with him. Meanwhile the station’s hobbled security guard (Sacha Baron Cohen) is on the prowl for unattended children he can whisk back to their parents, or, even better, the orphanage.
Crammed full of childlike wonder, “Hugo” is, first and foremost, Scorsese’s love letter to all things cinema. I haven’t read any press on “Hugo” and went into the movie completely surprised (save for what I’ve mentioned above), and far be it from me to deny anyone the same magical experience.
But the experience is undeniably magical. Who the characters are and how they’re linked is fantastic (if a bit unlikely) and the film’s early-to-mid century feel is pitch-perfect. Butterfield is a find, and Moretz continues the great work she’s done in films like “Kick Ass” and “Let Me In.” Kingsley, of course, chips in another stellar, effortless performance, and Baron Cohen merely threatens to steal the entire picture, bringing a welcome sense of humor to the proceedings.
And that 3D is easily the best use of what has been mostly a toothless gimmick up to this point since “Avatar.” The third dimension is neither a ham-fisted excuse to squeeze an extra $3 from each ticket, nor is it pointless and distracting in its use. Rather it helps the film burst off the screen, enhancing every snowflake, every gear and cog, adding a tremendous layer to the film. Scorsese even stretches its use, extending the shots to dizzying closeups that may be the one flaw of the format.
“Hugo” is one of the more engaging films of the year, a wondrous journey into a fully realized world that transcends its genre (yes, it’s a children’s movie, but is as fully engaging for adults as children), and quite possibly the best cinematic experience of the year.