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Hugo (3D Blu-ray Review)

29 Feb, 2012 By: John Latchem

Box Office $69.8 million
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $44.99 3D Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG’ for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking.
Stars Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Ray Winstone, Richard Griffiths, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jude Law.

According to legend, in the early days of motion pictures a simple reel of a train pulling into a station so startled those in the audience that they jumped back as the locomotive approached the screen. Imagine if they had seen it in 3D.

That 1890s exhibition by the Lumière brothers is among several early adventures in cinema depicted in Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s wonderful tribute to the spirit of artistry and imagination. Scorsese’s use of color and depth results in some of the most amazing 3D shots I’ve ever seen in a movie. This is about a master at work, indulging himself in the evolving technologies of the day and succeeding spectacularly. The 3D is not just employed as a gimmick here, but is part of a statement of creativity that brings the medium full circle.

Hugo, based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, chronicles the adventures of the eponymous youngster (Asa Butterfield) who discovers French filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) as a broken old man working in a toy shop in a Paris train station in the 1930s. Is there redemption to be found in recognition?

Méliès, like Scorsese, was a master in his own right — an innovator in visual effects, using camera tricks and editing to create fantastic imagery no one had ever seen before. His most famous work, 1902’s La Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), gave us the iconic shot of a spacecraft crashing into the eye of the man in the moon.

Scorsese’s presentation is breathtaking, zipping the camera in and around the train station and its inhabitants, filling the frame with particles of dust, flecks of snow and clouds of steam. As Hugo unravels the mystery of Méliès’ identity, it’s only natural for the viewer to wonder if Scorsese was actually bold enough to convert some of those silent-film spectacles into 3D, keeping the audience rapt with attention through one final, heartfelt tribute. He doesn’t disappoint.

Film enthusiasts looking for a nice companion piece should check out the finale episode of HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon miniseries, in which the creation of La Voyage dans la lune was paralleled with the Apollo 17 mission 70 years later, a contrast of imagination and reality. This 1998 tribute featured Tchéky Karyo as Méliès and Tom Hanks as his assistant and was much more explicit about the filmmaker’s downfall, as rampant piracy hindered Méliès’ ability to keep up with the evolving business model of cinema.

Méliès’ films themselves are available on several DVD compilations, the most comprehensive of which is probably First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913), released by Flicker Alley in 2008. It includes all of the films glimpsed in a separate Méliès tribute included on the Hugo Blu-ray: a featurette called “The Cinemagician.”

Other featurettes deal with the making of the film, focusing mostly on the visual effects, such as the re-creation of a famous train derailment, or the conceptualization of the film’s automaton, the little metal man that has its own fascinating history behind it. But when the subject turns to  the movie in general, the most amusing thing is the way all the child actors discuss the genius of Scorsese, though admittedly they know him only through reputation since they are too young to have seen any of his other movies.

The final featurette takes a look at Sacha Baron Cohen, who repressed a lot of his typical wackiness in playing the train station’s chief inspector, but brings out some of his trademark humor while discussing the role. Cohen is quite effective in the film, which only highlights the question of why he been cast in his own Inspector Clouseau reboot (where he’d be a much better fit than Steve Martin).

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