Hugo (2D) (US - BD)
Gabe's a little late reviewing the 2D version of Scorsese's first family film...
Bereft of his inventor father (Jude Law) at a young age, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is sent to live with his absentee, alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone), who lives in, and maintains the clocks in the Gare Montparnasse railway station. When not winding the clocks, avoiding Inspector Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen), or watching through the gears as the patrons and workers go about their daily business, Hugo repairs a broken automaton created by his father. The automaton requires parts, parts that he steals from the station’s toyshop. One day Hugo is caught in the act by the shop’s owner, a bitter and quiet old man named Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who punishes Hugo by confiscating his father’s blueprints for the automaton, and threatens to burn them. Hugo follows Méliès home to reclaim the notes, where he meets Georges' goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who agrees to help him, and convince Georges not to destroy his father’s documents.
I’m a guy that generally doesn’t dig on this newfangled digital 3D fad, but there were several films I had intended on seeing in the format this last year. I didn’t get around to a single one. Chief among these were Spielberg’s Tin Tin and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, both first attempts at the format from two of our greatest living directors. Even in 2D, and on a small screen it’s obvious that Scorsese had something special in mind for the 3D, and he deals with it in an immersive and clever manner. What has been somewhat overlooked, however, is the fact that this marks the first time Marty’s utilized quite so much digital trickery and virtual camera work, and the first time he’s made a film definitely aimed at a family audience. Not to imply that the man can do no wrong (I’ve seen New York, New York), but it is always a pleasure to see Scorsese experimenting with new techniques and genres, so the two-for-one promise of Hugo, is really too much for any real film fan to pass up. Strictly technically speaking Scorsese is in top form, and viewers assuming he might be lost in the gentle genre should rest assured that there are at least two utterly breathtaking, utterly Scorsese-esque sequences that stand out with the best of his ‘adult’ output. The incredibly artful flashback sequence where Georges Méliès recalls the birth and death of his filmmaking career is worth the price of admission alone. Given the fame he’s garnered through producing graphic and gritty scenes of criminal violence it’s easy to forget that Martin Scorsese is actually an incredibly eclectic filmmaker.
The story’s themes are classic, drawing from traditional sources like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. Author Brian Selznick, who wrote the original source novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, also cites Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak as a major influence, and utilized turn of the century historical records for more inspiration. However, Hugo still fits snuggly in the Scorsese canon by paying homage to the scholarly director’s favourite motion pictures, above all other subtexts and themes. Scorsese infuses the production with almost overwhelming levels of love for motion picture art, and treats the material like a whimsical master class in the art form. You know, for kids. Stylistically it’s clear that the director has been watching modern children’s entertainment for some time now. There are hints of every Harry Potter director’s work, along with images of Paris that recall Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, but generally I noticed that Scorsese was playing off slightly more classic motifs, like those found in classic Disney animation. There’s also a sense of Marty playing in Tim Burton’s sandbox, and making far more impressive and substantial sandcastles with the grains. He even pulls a bit of extra grandfatherly charm from an ailing Christopher Lee. Scorsese appears to be paying homage to younger filmmakers with these painterly and extreme visuals too. I see a whole lot of Guillermo del Toro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet in particular, specifically in terms of colour schemes, camera motion, and other basic visual motifs. Of course the largest influences still come back to Scorsese’s old standbys – Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Harold Lloyd and, obviously, Georges Méliès.
Scorsese is making a children’s film for discerning adults and modern children. Hugo’s sense of awe and wonder will likely appeal to five to ten year olds, and the pacing of the story is usually quick enough to engage most of the tweens in the house. The subject matter and artistic intent appeals to an older set, especially those of us familiar with everything Scorsese, Selznick and screenwriter John Logan are referencing, but there’s nothing elitist about the treatment. I suppose there are a handful of structural choices that could confuse the youngest members of the audience, and the middle act may put them to sleep with its mellow tone, but I see no problem in challenging the kiddies with something more substantial than SpongeBob every once and a while (not that there’s anything wrong with SpongeBob). Occasionally the ‘kiddiness’ of the production does get the better of Scorsese. Goodfellas, King of Comedy and After Hours notwithstanding, slapstick comedy isn’t one of his greatest strengths. This, coupled with Sacha Baron Cohen burnout, makes for some slightly fatiguing sequences with pseudo-villain Inspector Gustave, which I’d mark as the film’s most potent weakness. Outside of this, however, the performances are top notch, with Ben Kingsley and Helen McCrory making the greatest, most surprisingly un-Oscar nominated impact. Chloë Grace Moretz continues to impress with her range, and generally freak me out with her almost preternatural talent. Isabelle has almost nothing in common with Hit Girl or Abby the Let Me In vampire besides the fact that she continues Moretz’s prevailing theme as a girl wise beyond her years. She’s now found three entirely different ways to play women trapped in the body of a young girl.
Hugo comes to Blu-ray in two flavours – 2D and 3D. I don’t have a 3D set up, so this review pertains to the slightly less innovative, but just as impressive 2D, 1080p release. Not only does Hugo see Scorsese fully embracing a digital format, and someone effectively using the digital 3D gimmick (so I assume), but Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson manage to appropriate the overused orange and teal digital grading colour design in a manner I actually found quite pleasing. Besides black base shadows and white highlights, orange and baby blue are generally the only colours on screen at any given time. Sure, they mix to produce greens and violets on occasion, and are lightened enough to produce something similar to a flesh tone, but the only other notable hue is a thick, Carmine red, which makes a more intense impact during the flashback sequences. The colours are brilliantly separated here, as if each frame has been hand inked and painted for the production (which itself is a clever reference to the hand tinting processes of the silent era). Details are extremely sharp, including complex patterns, intricate background compositions, and touchable textures. There’s also a constant stream of light-stricken dust floating throughout the film, and these are easy to miss on the included standard definition DVD, where they appear as fuzzy blips. I see no major issues with compression, outside of maybe a few minor sharpening artefacts, and a few subtle blips of digital noise.
From frame one this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack comes alive with the buzz, click, and tingle of clock and train gears, despite rarely pressing into particularly aggressive territory. The sound design is generally pretty tight, and leans towards the ‘precious’ in terms of tone. There is a pleasant balance struck between genuinely cartoonish and natural sound here leading to a largely subtle and consistent hum. There are a few sharp highlights (Baron Cohen’s squeaky leg joint is a particularly boisterous aural cue throughout the film), and more expressive directional involvement (the inside of the clock is particularly fancy), but the overall rule of thumb is rather low-key mixes of rather low-key noises. The sequence where Hugo has a nightmare about the a train leaving the track and destroying the terminal is a huge exception to the rule, and really gives the channels a good directional workout, not to mention a solid LFE burst. The dialogue occasionally sounds a bit unnatural, which isn’t really a problem given the rather unnatural universe of the film, and the consistent clarity and volume levels more than make up for a few odd bits of reverb. Howard Shore’s French-infused musical score rhythmically moves the film along its narrative rails without much boisterous embellishment.
The extras begin with Shoot the Moon: The Making of Hugo (19:50, HD), a generally informative, but advertising minded behind the scenes featurette including interviews with Scorsese, producer Grahm King, author Brian Selznick, screenwriter John Logan, actors Ben Kingsley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Frances de la Tour, Asa Butterfield, Christopher Lee and Sacha Baron Cohen, animal trainer Mathilde de Cagny, effects supervisor Robert Legato, and production designer Dante Ferretti. The participants discuss the original novel and its sources and inspiration, the pre-production process, Scorsese’s interest in doing a children’s film and directorial process, casting, the faux period celebrity cameos, the dog actors, the process of shooting in 3D, special effects processes, and production and set design. Next up is The Cinemagician, Georges Méliès (15:40, HD), a relatively substantial look at the career of the real life filmmaker at the center of the film, including interviews with Méliès great-great-granddaughter Pauline Duclaud-Lacoste, Selznick, Scorsese, King film restorer/collector Serge Bromberg, and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences director of educational programs Randy Haberkamp. More of the story than you’d expect is based directly on Méliès real life, and apart from a feature length documentary including every one of the director’s surviving films this is a solid primer. The extras wrap-us with Big Effects, Small Scale (6:00, HD), a dissection of the special effects and production design of the sequence where the train derails and tears through the station wall, and Sacha Baron Cohen: Role of a Lifetime (3:30, HD), a tongue in cheek look at the comedic actor’s role in the film.
It didn’t take home the best picture or best director Oscars, and I’m not convinced (yet) that it’s quite the masterpiece some are claiming it is, but Hugo definitely belongs on an exclusive list of films that celebrate filmdom in a manner even the least cineaste among us can appreciate, along with Cinema Paradiso and Inglourious Basterds. This 2D Blu-ray release might not capture the purity of the magic originally presented on 3D cinema screens, but looks nearly perfect (if not awfully orange and teal), and the Oscar winning sound is rich and full-bodied. Extras are a bit brief, but cover the important aspects of the production.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 28th February 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital Spanish, French and Portuguese
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portugues
Extras: Shoot the Moon - The Making of Hugo, The Cinemagician - Georges Melies, The Mechanical Man at the Heart of Hugo, Big Effects, Small Scale, Sacha Baron Cohen: Role of a Lifetime, DVD Copy, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Christopher Lee
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama and Family
Length: 126 minutes
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