Director Martin Scorsese is giving movie goers a reason to put on those funny 3D glasses.
"Hugo," Scorsese's first attempt at three-dimensional movie-making, may just change the way we think about 3D films. If only the story being told wasn't such a snooze. Film critics will forgive the "Raging Bull" director when he abandons his pre-teen leads and dwells on the dawn of motion pictures. Bread and butter movie goers will simply roll their eyes and wait for the next bit of 3D eye candy to leap off the screen.
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"Hugo," based on the children's book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick, feels like a movie that's been buried under a pile of heavy pillows. The attempts at whimsy stumble, the sense of wonder squandered by its somber tone. Even Borat himself, the great Sacha Baron Cohen, can't inject enough humor to make "Hugo" anything but a visually striking snooze factory.
Young, wide-eyed Asa Butterfield stars as Hugo, an orphan who lives betwixt the walls of a Parisian train station. He's a whiz with gadgetry like his late father (Jude Law), but his knack for nicking gears catches the attention of a surly toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley). Hugo has better luck with the man's goddaughter (Chloe Moretz of "Kick-Ass" fame), a charmer who always finds a way to throw a $20 word into her conversations.
Hugo and the girl embark on a series of kiddie adventures like evading the clutches of the station's inspector (Cohen) and trying to complete an automaton started by Hugo's father. Their playful romps may soon come to an end. The stubborn inspector wants to haul Hugo to the nearest orphanage, and the toy shop owner had his only cruel plan in mind for the lad.
Scorsese invites us into Hugo's world with a series of sweeping camera movements that take eye-popping advantage of that third dimension. This isn't gimmickry on parade but a filmmaker genuinely curious as to how 3D can enhance the movie going experience. Those vistas still draw our attention to the technology in unwelcome ways, but at least we're seeing 3D put to rigorous, artful use.
The narrative isn't nearly so inviting, especially when the story shifts to focus on Kingsley's character. Gone is the magical sense of children making the most of a dangerous playground, replaced by Scorsese reclaiming his role as the nation's film professor.
Scorsese saves what he imagines is best for last, a loving tribute to cinema's earliest days as seen through the eyes of a film pioneer. The director's technical prowess remains without equal, but including snippets from classic silent films only reminds us how stilted and unnatural "Hugo" is on even a cursory examination. And do we really need a cinematic lecture on film preservation?
"Hugo" may have some of the trappings of a children's film, but young ones will be bored out of their Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirts long before the final act. Scorsese is an odd choice to helm a story aimed at younger audiences, though at least no one gets graphically whacked at any point in the proceedings. And even a beguiling performer like Moretz can't make "Hugo" more than a grown-up film masquerading as fun for all age groups.
Cohen's manic energy is kept tightly under wrap, a shrewd move without a logical payoff. You wait ... and wait ... for Cohen to uncork a slice of slapstick glee, and you leave the theater empty handed. The film prefers to saddle him with a flimsy romantic subplot that adds nothing but minutes to a film already powering past the two-hour mark.
"Hugo" might just give the 3D movement a second wind, but Scorsese's affection for the new movie format could have been put to far better use.