You know in an instant that Hugo isn't your typical 3-D children's movie. The film opens with a swooping aerial shot of 1930s Paris, the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower peaking above the grid to orient you as the camera dives into a train station and glides along the floor past a series of bystanders. There's a spatial precision here, and the sharp 3-D creates the impression of a magnificent kids' pop-up book.
This isn't another anonymous filmmaker deploying the 3-D gimmick for cheap effects and enhanced ticket prices. It's one of the world's great filmmakers, Martin Scorsese, going places — 3-D!? a kiddie flick!? — you never expected and doing so brilliantly.
This adaptation of Brian Selznick's Caldecott Award-winning children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret is probably the most artful and purposeful use of 3-D since James Cameron's Avatar, but with characters and a story to match the technique, and stands as an unlikely defense of the overused device, a testament to what it can be in the hands of a great filmmaker.
Scorsese's 3-D isn't assaultive. It's woven into the grammar of the film, and when images do leap more dramatically from the screen, they take the form of a snowfall, then dust and lint in the air, papers flying from a dropped box, and finally the smoke and flickering fireworks from a faded film.
Here a young boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), lives in the bowels of the train station, surrounded by steam and iron and constantly moving gears, where he keeps the station's clocks running, a skill he learned from his late clockmaker father (Jude Law) and a job ostensibly belonging to his missing, drunkard uncle (Ray Winstone), who took Hugo as an apprentice after the father's death.
Hugo occasionally emerges from the walls and into the station lobby to steal food from a café and mechanical parts from a toy store, all while avoiding the watchful eye of a bright-blue-clad, limping station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, barely recognizable, terrific). The purloined mechanical parts are being used to repair a complicated automaton Hugo's father had rescued from a museum — an intricate wind-up contraption, like a music box, but one that writes, or perhaps draws, instead of playing music. They had been working on it together when Hugo's father died in a fire, and the boy thinks fixing the machine will result in a message from his dad.
The toy shop is owned by Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), a curmudgeon whose goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), becomes Hugo's only real friend. Gradually, we learn that Méliès, a broken man, might be connected to the broken automaton.
Hugo is the protagonist here, but Méliès is the truer focus, a fact successfully elided by the film's marketing, which suggests a Harry Potter-like children's adventure film. But Méliès is a real figure — a stage magician turned silent-film-era special-effects pioneer who is essentially the father of spectacle filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and James Cameron.
Méliès' backstory as a filmmaker and present as a forgotten — indeed, presumed dead — shop owner who can't bear to think of the past is the real heart of the film and Scorsese's entry point for what amounts to a celebration of silent cinema.
Ultimately, this high-tech creation — set in 1931, at the dawn of the sound era — is a tribute to what filmmaking increasingly is not: the mechanical. Hugo is about mechanical processes — the clocks at the station, the automaton, Méliès' sets, hand-cranked projectors. It's about film not as something to be edited on a laptop but as a strip of celluloid to be cut and spliced by hand.
Isabelle has never seen a movie, and Hugo sneaks her into a matinee of Harold Lloyd's Safety Last, where the comedian famously hangs from a clock. Later, a film historian (A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg) plays a reel of Méliès' famous short film A Trip to the Moon for the children and the filmmaker's wife and former leading lady (Helen McCrory), projecting the hand-tinted print on the living room wall as they all watch, enraptured. The famous image from that film, of a rocket ship landing in the moon's eye, figures prominently.
Twice Scorsese imagines the first screening, in 1895, of the Lumière brothers' Arrival of a Train at the Station, a birth-of-cinema moment in which viewers reportedly scrambled in panic for fear the train would leap through the screen at them. This is a reminder that "movie" is shorthand for "moving picture" and that we didn't always need the sensation of filmmaking to be heightened.
Opening the same day, The Muppets has much in common with Hugo. It's an ostensible "kids' movie" more likely to find favor with grownups. And it's also a tribute to a mechanical art, reminding us that a simple matrix of felt, fur, wires, and voices can capture the imagination more than any computer-generated creation.
But if Hugo is rooted in a more considered form of appreciation — a second-hand nostalgia built on critical judgment — The Muppets is, by contrast, nostalgia unfiltered. It's directly personal, both for the filmmakers and, presumably, for much of the audience, the target group being not children but the adults who remember watching The Muppet Show on television as kids a couple of decades ago. The film posits The Muppet Show — with more than a little justification — as a remnant of a smarter, more decent kid culture.
The Muppets opens with an aesthetic promise it can't quite keep. Paul Simon's spirited "Me & Julio Down by the Schoolyard" erupts from a black screen and leads into an immaculately damaged home-movie reel that tells the story of siblings Gary, a human, and Walter, a puppet, as they grow up together, Gary getting taller and Walter, much to his disappointment, staying the same size.
As the film opens into the present, Gary (co-writer and Muppets fanatic Jason Segel) and Walter are adult roommates planning a trip to Los Angeles with Gary's longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), where Gary will take Walter to pay tribute to his heroes at the now-defunct Muppet Theater, which they find in disrepair and soon to be destroyed by evil oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). This launches Gary, Walter, and Mary on a journey to round up the original Muppets crew for one last big show as a theater-saving fund-raiser.
Once this premise is established, Gary and Mary seem superfluous. The film becomes a super-sized elaboration on the old Muppet Show, with all the flat theatricality that implies. Like the old show, the movie is packed with cameos (the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl as the "Animal" stand-in for cheap tribute act the Moopets, Zach Galifianakis as audience member "Hobo Joe," Emily Blunt as Ms. Piggy's sour secretary) and musical numbers, some of which work (a chicken-clucked chorus of "F--- You") and some of which don't (Chris Cooper raps). And all the old faves — mine's Fozzie — get their spotlight.
Ultimately, The Muppets is a fun movie that aspires to more. It's overcome with love for its faded subject and, as an extension, by a melancholy narcissism. Those who love the subject as much as the filmmakers do are likely to talk themselves into loving the movie too.
But as Thanksgiving week kids-movies-for-grownups go, Hugo doesn't require your love as a precondition. It can do the heavy lifting all by itself.
Opens Wednesday, November 23rd
Opens Wednesday, November 23rd