3D films have hit a steep decline since Avatar director James Cameron was able to swindle theater owners into converting to 3D projectors. Rather than new projects, a string of recycled 3D offerings has been appearing in theaters: Disney has failed to properly compete with the computer animated films of Pixar or even Dreamworks, so they’re opting to re-release their hits from the 90s in 3D. Even Cameron himself has been working on Titanic‘s 3D conversion instead of making another film. Who would have thought that Martin Scorsese, a director known for portraying the most unsavory of gangsters, would be the one to remind us of the possibilities of 3D?
Hugo Cabret is a young orphan living in the walls of a Paris train station, invisibly traversing the station’s secret pathways to maintain the guts of the station’s clocks. Hugo’s home is a steampunk jungle of hanging pipes and clock gears that a clumsy Terminator could lose an arm in. Hugo doesn’t only steal food from the station’s shops to stave off hunger: Before Hugo was orphaned by a tragic fire, he and his father were working on a metal automaton they’d found in a museum. Hugo has been swiping delicate gears from toy maker Georges in order to fix the automaton on his own. When the boy is caught red-handed by the elaborately mustachioed toy shop owner, he and Georges find their lives increasingly connected as Hugo and Georges’ goddaughter, Isabelle, unearth clues about Georges’ past.
Unlike the harsh plasticine colors of Tim Burton’s sugar pop world (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland), Hugo‘s practical sets and CGI enhancements offer a lush vibrancy that retains its human intimacy. The lively production design and color palette harmonize with the film’s amorphous setting between World War I and World War II, making it one of the most inviting historical environments depicted on screen.
Scorsese’s virtuosity behind 3D cameras plays the biggest role in making the world of Hugo inviting. The hustle and bustle of a train station offers Scorsese plenty of opportunities to use the 3D technology to demonstrate the depth of the space, as well as exploring Hugo’s hidden world behind the station’s walls. As the boy races through either of these spaces, the sense of depth adds an extra thrill to the chase, but even simple shots of Hugo cranking the clocks are enhanced by gears crowding the frame at varying depths. The technology would be superfluous without the rich environment and Scorsese’s keen eye for naturally integrating the space for 3D moments. It’s definitely to Scorsese’s credit that despite never previously tackling a family film or any movie in 3D, he has demonstrated a mastery of both formats.
Despite benefiting from Scorsese at the helm and a wonderful cast (Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Asa Butterfield), ultimately Hugo has enough ingredients for two films. The initial story of an orphan with an automaton quickly gets subsumed by the discovery of Georges Méliès, early cinema and special effects/sci-fi pioneer, and there’s not enough narrative linkage to excuse the transition. It’s not as if either narrative isn’t enjoyable: Hugo’s secret world in the train station is the perfect stuff of childhood fantasy, and it ascends to a whole new level when we’re flashback-ed to the production of Méliès films in the making. Tampering with depth of field, elaborate sets, pyrotechnics, and trick edits, Méliès’ film studio is the physical manifestation of the imaginative mind, a playhouse any child (or adult) would love to visit.
If Scorsese had given way to popular, garish uses of CGI for more of the film, the spectacle wouldn’t buttress the film so well, but given the stunning world Scorsese invites us to tour, too much plot is a forgivable flaw.