"The movies are our special place."
So says the pensive, 12-year-old title character in 'Hugo,' and though most of us who go to movies blithely share this simple sentiment, director Martin Scorsese brilliantly and perceptively shows us why. His beguiling ode to the magic of cinema and the sense of wonder and community the art form inspires ranks as one of the director's greatest achievements (and that's saying something!). Flashy yet subtle, grand yet understated, 'Hugo' brought tears to my eyes, not because of any emotional plot development, but because this heartwarming film celebrates with grace and lyricism the personal connection we all have with film, and the important, intimate role it plays in all of our lives.
No other director could express these ideas more simply and with more potency than Scorsese, who infuses 'Hugo' with an uncharacteristic yet utterly charming warmth and innocence that augments its power and makes it resonate. And no other film encapsulates the essence of Scorsese - who he is and what he does - better than 'Hugo,' which ties together the director's passion for motion pictures (spawned from a lonely, challenging childhood, much like Hugo's) and his intense commitment to the cause of film preservation. 'Hugo' may start out as a tale of both an orphaned boy searching for a home and a bitter old man at war with the past, but it becomes a story about all of us and how movies collectively bond us through dreams. With ceaseless urgency, almost all humans strive to connect with someone or something - it's in our DNA - and Scorsese depicts how film often satisfies that innate, burning need, and consequently brings us joy.
Based on the Caldecott Medal-winning novel by Brian Selznick, 'Hugo' chronicles the wide-eyed adventures of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a young, penniless French boy who lives alone in the clock tower of a Paris train depot after his father dies and his guardian uncle goes off on a bender. Hugo leads a hand-to-mouth existence, swiping croissants and milk from station vendors, and stealing toys from a booth run by an austere elderly man (Ben Kingsley). Hugo deconstructs the toys and uses some of the parts to repair an automaton (a primitive robot) that his father, a clockmaker, purchased from a museum and the two worked on together. One day, the toy dealer catches Hugo red-handed and, as punishment, forces him to relinquish his prized notebook that contains diagrams outlining the automaton's mechanisms.
In an attempt to reclaim the notebook, Hugo comes in contact with the toy dealer's goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and the two embark on a voyage of discovery, each exposing the other to unexplored wonders. Isabelle opens Hugo's eyes to the world of books, while Hugo introduces Isabelle to movies. In an odd coincidence, Isabelle, quite literally, holds the key to the automaton, which in turn sheds light on the true avocation of her godfather, Georges Melies, who they discover was a once-famous filmmaker. Melies, who's now forgotten, depressed, and impoverished, forms a tenuous bond with Hugo, who tries to help him, while continually evading the clutches of the tyrannical station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who relishes sending stray children to the city orphanage.
Though he's adept at fixing things, can Hugo repair the shambles of his own life, restore the reputation and self-esteem of Melies, and indirectly heal the crippled station inspector, who feels like half a man? It's a tall order, but Hugo, with the movies and the automaton on his side, proves he's up to the task.
There's a Dickensian air about the characters of 'Hugo,' especially the plucky urchin who's reminiscent of Oliver Twist, that lends the film additional charm. Though many of the minor figures - a flower peddler (Emily Mortimer), cafe owner (Frances de la Tour), bumbling patron (Richard Griffiths), suspicious bookseller (Christopher Lee), and Hugo's gruff, drunken uncle (Ray Winstone) - only play marginal roles, they're essential cogs in the film's wheel, and Scorsese treats them with respect. And in a further homage to the great movies of yore, we often witness their actions through Hugo's peering eyes, a la Hitchcock's 'Rear Window.' Scorsese also beautifully incorporates into the story sequences Hugo himself views on film, such as comedian Harold Lloyd swinging from the hands of a clock tower, and tips his hat to Melies by giving some shots, like the Paris skyline, a fantastical, animated look.
Just as Melies was an innovator in the early 20th century, Scorsese breaks ground today with his keen use of 3D, bringing what many still regard as a flamboyant, commercial fad into mainstream movie making. Never a distraction, the 3D images in 'Hugo' unfold naturally as a part of the story, enhancing impact and providing delicate shadings, while the more overt effects salute the showmanship of Melies by adding a whimsical playfulness to certain scenes. Film, 'Hugo' explains, is the essence of magic, and 3D, when employed judiciously, can be a vital aspect of the spell celluloid weaves. Scorsese, in his infinite wisdom, recognizes that, and Melies would have appreciated his perspective.
And anyone who truly appreciates movies - what they do and say, the care with which they're often made, and how they make us feel - will fall in love with 'Hugo.' There's a reason it received 11 Academy Award nominations and won five Oscars. And though it's a shame Scorsese himself didn't take home a gold statuette (for, even more than 'Taxi Driver,' 'Raging Bull,' and 'GoodFellas,' this picture defines him), he doesn't need the award to validate this amazing work. As Isabelle says in the film, "Thank you for the movie today. It was a gift." And 'Hugo' is Scorsese's gift to those of us who cherish movies. With respect, reverence, and a boyish enthusiasm that will never leave him, Scorsese shows us that film was a magical, wondrous entity 100 years ago and it still is today.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Hugo' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. This limited 3D edition contains a Blu-ray 3D disc that houses just the feature film; a regular 50GB dual-layer Blu-ray disc that contains the movie and all the supplements; a standard-def DVD; and instructions on how to download an Ultraviolet digital copy of 'Hugo' to your portable device. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround. Once inserted into the player, previews for 'Titanic 3D,' 'The Adventures of Tintin,' 'Footloose (2011),' 'Like Crazy,' and 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' immediately pop up, followed by the full-motion menu with music.
Breathtaking is perhaps the best way to describe this reference quality transfer from Paramount. 'Hugo' won Oscars for its cinematography, art direction, and visual effects, and this often jaw-droppingly beautiful 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 effort showcases all those elements to perfection, while transforming the 3D presentation from gimmick to art form in the blink of an eye. The opening shot of the Paris skyline glistens like a newly minted penny, and sets the tone for the entire film. The pristine source material is practically devoid of grain, yet the image never loses its warmth and lushness, even during scenes that heavily rely on CGI effects. Clarity and contrast are exceptional (be sure and catch the reflection of the clock in Kingsley's eye), and colors pop, thanks to marvelously modulated saturation. The bright blue of the station inspector's uniform, the flowers in Lisette's cart, the tinting on Melies' films...all these possess an intoxicating vibrancy and lushness.
Black levels are deep and inky, shadow detail is very good, and fleshtones remain stable and true throughout. The textures of fabrics are easily discernible, as are background details, and though a faint bit of shimmer afflicts a couple of patterns, the intricate designs on many costumes stay rock solid. Razor sharp close-ups accent the distinguishable facial features of the varied cast, including the automaton, which looks almost human.
The inspired use of 3D, however, sends this movie into the stratosphere. Seamlessly integrated into the film and astonishingly well defined, the 3D imagery takes us inside Hugo's world and into the captivating realm of cinema like no other picture I've seen before. And the effects are even more stunning in the home environment than in a theater. The sense of depth and openness the 3D provides is truly amazing, as Hugo peers through bars, windows, and the through the hands of the clock. Various perspectives are heightened and spatial boundaries blurred, so we feel a part of the action. Details like snow, ash, steam, mist, and fireworks gently dance before us; a swinging pendulum cuts through the screen; the glistening snout of a growling Doberman Pinscher protrudes forward; sheets of paper float before our eyes; and, in my favorite dimensional shot, the Station Inspector slowly leans forward, lunging further and further and further and still further into the room, making his intimidating presence not just known, but felt, and making us recoil just a tad in response. Scorsese also adds a hint of 3D to Melies' 'A Trip to the Moon' to make it even more magical. For someone who has never before waded into 3D waters, Scorsese possesses a surprising mastery of the concept, knowing when to push limits and when to pull back. As much as the form dazzles and thrills me, I still find it hard not to regard 3D as some sort of trick or gimmick, but 'Hugo' comes closer than any other film I've seen to using 3D as an artistic tool rather than a commercial draw. And who better than Scorsese to legitimize it and show off its true capabilities.
Aside from the aforementioned brief shimmers, no imperfections mar this exceptional transfer. No noise, banding, pixelation, or edge enhancement rear their ugly heads. Not everyone may be enthralled by the story of Hugo Cabret, but it's impossible not to be blown away by this impeccable 3D treatment that's truly a visual feast.
Along with the reference quality video transfer comes a reference quality DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track that's stunning in its clarity, precision, and level of detail. 'Hugo' possesses a rich audio fabric, juggling big moments and delicate nuances, yet all the sound is distinct, perfectly balanced, and awash in superior fidelity and fine tonal depth. From the opening frames, featuring the rhythmic interlocking of mechanical gears exquisitely apportioned among all the room's speakers, it's evident we're in for an aural treat, and the track never backs down over the course of the film. Superior dynamic range handles screeching highs and low rumbles with ease, and nary a hint of distortion creeps into the mix.
The surrounds are almost constantly engaged, as bits of detail gently flow from speaker to speaker. The hustle and bustle of the busy train station is espcially well rendered, with footsteps, the rustling of clothing, steam, whistles, and rail sounds at once distinct and yet unified. The gears and clicks of the automaton are crisp and lively, the swoosh of flying papers floats about the room, and when the train crashes through the station the cacophony of destruction crashes through the speakers. Stereo separation across the front channels is also excellent, and bass frequencies are potent and perfectly integrated into the track's whole.
Howard Shore's gorgeous, Oscar-nominated score boasts exceptional presence and fidelity, caressing small moments and accenting big ones, yet never overwhelming the on-screen action. Dialogue is always well prioritized and easy to understand, and no surface noise or hiss intrude or distract. 'Hugo' won Academy Awards for sound editing and sound mixing, and this superbly clear, active, and immersive track makes it easy to understand why.
A few featurettes are the only extras offered, and though they're rather pedestrian from a production standpoint, they do impart some good information.
'Hugo' will forever stand as my choice for Best Picture of 2011 and as another monumental achievement for director Martin Scorsese. At once an endearing family film and a fabulous 3D experience, 'Hugo' is most importantly a love letter to movies - those who make them and those who watch and revere them - produced by a man who does both. It will move, dazzle, and delight anyone who sees it, especially on 3D Blu-ray. This disc features top-of-the-line 3D video and reference quality lossless audio that combine to make 'Hugo' even more thrilling at home than it was in theaters, and a must own video release. A few more extras would have been nice, but this disc isn't about what's behind the screen; it's about what's on it. 'Hugo' is an exceptional film in any format, but if you can, see it in 3D. You won't forget it.