Martin Scorsese‘s “Hugo” is a movie about magic, but it’s also a movie as magic trick: Scorsese convinces us he’s made one film then uses some crafty sleight-of-hand to transform “Hugo” before our eyes. Though I’ve read interviews and articles about the film that reveal its secrets, and even listened to the director himself spoil them in an interview on “The Daily Show,” I went into the movie cold, and my appreciation of it was undeniably enhanced by the absolute surprise of its ultimate revelations. So I’m going to be very careful what I say here. To do otherwise would be like explaining how the magician saws the woman in half before you’ve even see him do it.
Outwardly, “Hugo” looks like a simple children’s film. The title character (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who lives in a Parisian train station in the 1920s. After his father dies (Jude Law, in a brief role), his uncle (Ray Winstone, even more briefly) adopts him and puts him to work minding, winding, and repairing the station’s enormous clocktower. While Hugo keeps the clocks running, he also searches for — and occasionally steals — tools and parts for the one thing his dad left him: a broken automaton that could deliver an important message from beyond the grave from father to son. But stealing the parts he needs puts Hugo directly in the crosshairs of the station’s cruel inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and the bitter owner of its trinket and toy store (Ben Kinglsey).
Hugo’s thefts lead directly to several impressively staged chase scenes over, under, and through the Paris train station, and that’s where Scorsese’s use of 3D really shines. If Scorsese doesn’t single-handedly save 3D as a artistic medium, he certainly proves that reports of its death were greatly exaggerated. Even more than James Cameron’s “Avatar,” this may be the first truly beautiful 3D movie; and one of the few whose cinematography feels enhanced by 3D instead of diminished by it. Director of photography Robert Richardson uses steam, dust, and falling snow to develop and deepen the sense of onscreen space, and the golden colors are rich enough to shine through those pesky 3D glasses.
“Hugo” looked like a weird choice for Scorsese, the sort of project a director of adult fare takes on after having a few kids just so their children can watch something they make. It’s based on a popular children’s book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, and its hero’s life would seem to be so far removed from its director’s childhood on the mean streets of New York City. But the twists in the second and third act reveal the “Hugo” as intensely personal statement from Scorsese, one not just about magic, but the magic of cinema.