If you've been looking for an excuse to finally check out the Carmike 12's new "BigD" theater—and it's nice to have a reason when you're going to shell out between $10.50 and $14 for the privilege—Martin Scorsese might be able to help you out. Just be forewarned that this is Marty Scorsese as you've probably never seen him: PG-rated. And, in perhaps an even larger departure, there's no Leonardo DiCaprio. These changes suit him well. Hugo is a majestic film.
More than that, Hugo is the most visually stunning movie I've seen since Avatar; and while it's not as technically revolutionary as James Cameron's epic 3D ode to the Na'vi of planet Pandora, it has something of equal importance: a much better story.
There are so many surprising elements at play here that three days later I'm still trying to digest the wonderful sensory overload of it all, from the stunning 3D cinematography to the story itself, which diverges so drastically from what we expect—at least for those of us who haven't read the book. Hugo is based on Brian Selznick's 2007 illustrated historical novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which I was thankful for not knowing about, lest I entered the theater with expectations of any kind.
The part of Hugo I expected is that it stars a mechanically inclined, orphaned boy living in a Parisian train station in 1930. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) has been living behind the walls of the station ever since his father died in a museum fire. Here in his lair, he tends to the many clocks while constantly trying to elude the station inspector. Sacha Baron Cohen, in a role so refreshingly different than Borat, is that unnamed station inspector, patrolling the grounds with menacing eyes and a troubled soul, watchdog in tow. We meet these characters, as well as others station mainstays, in the most beautiful opening shot of the year, grandly sweeping over the nighttime winter Paris skyline and into the station, past passengers and trains and stores and cafes. Like large portions of the film, including the wonderfully intricate networks of clocks throughout the station, there's a lot of CGI at work here, but you might not notice, and you certainly won't care.
This life of Hugo, who spends much of his day tinkering with a mysterious self-operating mechanical machine called an automaton, would make for a fairly intriguing story on its own. But that's only half of the film. Wonderfully integrated into Hugo is the partially fictionalized tale of George Méliès, the legendary French silent filmmaker and cinematic innovator who broke ground with special effects at the turn of the 20th century.
In Hugo, Méliès (the always stellar Ben Kingsley) is nearing the end of his life. He's a broken down man who lost it all during the Great War and now spends his days anonymously running a gift shop at the train station with the help of his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Moretz). She knows nothing about her godfather's past, and the great fun here is watching Hugo and Isabelle piece it all together.
The history lesson is fascinating. Some viewers may resent the detour Hugo takes here, and there are indeed lengthy flashbacks to Méliès's early days as a magician who becomes obsessed with the idea of moving pictures at 24 frames per second. Scorsese re-creates the first studio where Méliès filmed, produced and even acted in hundreds of short films. We see the laborious process involved with early filmmaking, and we can feel Scorsese's love and admiration for this early pioneer. These scenes serve a purpose in helping us know the elderly Méliès, who is reluctant to acknowledge anything about his past.
That the simultaneous storylines evolve and flourish together is another magic trick. Over the course of more than two hours and multiple sidetracks, Hugo connects dots where you didn't think dots existed. And Scorsese deserves an Oscar nomination for telling a moving story that uses special effects to its great advantage.
The obvious question then is whether Hugo would hold up as well under 2D circumstances (it's playing in both formats at the Carmike), and the honest answer is probably not. Hugo is that rare film that combines visual and storytelling elements with equal expertise. It's the difference between seeing a good and a great film. Don't wait for the DVD with this one.
Hugo continues at the Carmike 12.