Hugo (Asa Butterfield) inhabits a clock tower, spending his days scrounging for food amidst a bustling Paris train station, and fixing the multitude of gears, clocks, and winding mechanisms. It’s a depressing cry for help in a way, forever seeking a connection with his dead father, and a means of keeping that family life alive internally.
Hugo also has a complex, involved automaton. Purposes for the metal machine only become clear later, and when they’re in view, it’s more than Hugo himself could have hoped for. The reality is, for all of its emotional weight and orphaned survival, Hugo is biographical. In regards to who becomes the central driving force.
It’s all too easy to write Hugo off in the first act. After all, it seems little is happening as the kid scrambles from one place to another, under the watchful eye of a dry, almost heartless security officer. There’s something that pulls the viewer in, enough to hook a movie lover in it’s midst where it won’t let go: the visuals.
This isn’t a superficial set designers dream. From the ground up, Hugo was imagined in three dimensions, and that’s clear even in the flat canvas of 2D. This is more than bland objects being scattered around the screen, but a series of angles, consistently applied foreground focus, and a directorial style pushes the actors into a stern, centralized look into the lens. You feel as if Ben Kingsley is involved in a stare down with yourself.
Eventually, Hugo weaves its story, intertwined within this magical, imaginative fairy tale as much as it is with film’s humble beginnings as an art form. Those who have studied the origins will catch on quicker than others, while a general mainstream audience might learn something. Who knew film studies could be woven into such a grand piece of entertainment?
The masterstroke goes to author Brian Selznick, who not only delivered the book this is based on, but did so for children. Most kids don’t even understand the concept of the early silents, let alone they existed. Black & white is likely a foreign concept in and of itself, so to take and help it appeal to that demographic is giving the younger set credit they deserve.
That’s another reason Hugo is such a tremendous success; it’s appealing to all. The best kids films always are, and Scorsese does it without babbling sidekicks or a Disney-like demeanor. Paramount’s healthy, seemingly unrestrained budget lets Hugo create a personalized sense of identity, one that scholars will dissect as time moves on, if they haven’t already.
The stand out for Hugo are, undoubtedly, the environments. None flash by without something to take note or, whether that be a movie poster, book, toy, brick structure, or gear. Nothing is lost within these power visuals, the type of material that can define a format, or in this case, Blu-ray. That first visit to Ben Kingsley’s toy shop is extraordinary, littered and busy with junk or rundown products. It’s magnificent, textured, and virtually punches any doubters square in the face.
More impressively, it handles all of this without any mistakes. With a litany of reference exteriors and clicking gears, Hugo never once shows weakness. Fine lines never fall victim to aliasing, and glamorous pans across city skylines never bother themselves with flicker. Even amongst the darkest interiors, this remains a clean, clear presentation. It’s as if digital never once heard of low light noise.
Even in close, this mightily textured world reproduces an astonishing level of facial detail. Even with the youngest members of the cast, their faces carry easily discernible, natural definition. Period clothing, with heavy wool and other thickly defined materials shine in HD, even in medium shots where the facial detail takes on a mildly disappointing smoothness. It’s not so much this disc as it is the source photography.
If anything here misses a mark -and widely so- it’s the lifeless color palette. While the golden hues give the piece a majestic, fantastical quality, they’re backed by deadened blues. Hugo looks no different than any other Michael Bay blockbuster, and that’s a depressing shame. There’s no reason for orange & teal domination to carry the entirety of the piece. What makes sense during those dramatic lows doesn’t suit the brightened highs.
Clips from silent films, painted frame by frame by hand, have more artistic flair than Hugo’s miserable blanket look. While clearly no fault of the home media in question, it can certainly dull the urge to display the film as a demo or reference, when clearly, it could have been. That’s not to say this needed to be brilliantly vibrant every second of its existence, but a dash of another primary certainly would have helped. Instead, it feels woefully uninspired, and that (clearly) isn’t something associated with Hugo.
Despite its intrinsic focus on 3D life, Hugo becomes a stress test more than a 3D exhibition. While weight in substantial, reaching far into the frame (especially where the station is concerned), cinematography is gloomy. Dark corridors and dimly lit, vintage locations are prone to cross talk on even high-end 3D displays. Hugo is no doubt aggressive, but goes for gusto without consideration of dreary surroundings.
To be fair, almost every shot will contain sufficient layering, from foreground gears to passer-bys. Aid in embellishing 3D strength is consistently present, enriching even if the effect is clumsily created. There are too many positives to wash Hugo of its 3D girth, especially snow and other particle effects, but it is a downer considering how cautiously photographed the film is for the effect.
For whatever minor failings can be associated with the video, they all but evaporate when considering the audio. A true award winner that produces a sense of place, space, and fluidity, every ounce of precision afforded to this DTS-HD 7.1 mix is graciously taken. Set in motion within the world of clocks and thus clicking gears, every interior of the station will reproduce something that requires attention. This is evident before the company logos stop their march across the screen.
Hugo moves into a master shot of the station, busy travelers panning to the sides and flawlessly behind as the virtual camera pushes forward. For all that the visuals do to set scale, the expansiveness of the audio does it better. There’s a sense of constant width and depth that even with 3D, isn’t complete without the aural qualities. In 2D, it feels necessitated.
The myriad of chases leads to an increase in saturation, a particularly tense one involving the kids almost silent until the panic sets in. The flood of adults begins to swell until it encompasses all of the soundfield for the rest of the scene. Subtle cues, including a high exterior on a clock, is given dramatic tension as the winds pick up, and not in a traditional, swirling way. The effect isn’t supposed to be noticed so much as it’s supposed to be absorbed.
The only dramatic disappointment is a train crash, a replication of a true life event in which the vehicle bursts from the upper floor of the station through the window. Bass is seemingly forgotten, yet it was there when the engines were droning on seconds ago. One can logically assume a train that falls 20 or so feet onto concrete will deliver a bit of a thump. This mix doesn’t think so. That said, when you’re only missing one cue in all of this bliss, you’re excused.
It’s a shame Hugo died at the box office. There’s such a wealth of material that could be pulled from the creation, and instead, Paramount slaps this one together to push it out the door just to get it over with. Shoot the Man, the generic making-of, is padded with footage from the main feature and is overly promotional. The Cinemagician focuses on the silent filmmaker the film becomes semi-biographical about (no spoilers needed here).
The Mechanical Man details the impressive creation of a key character in the film, an entirely gear-controlled automaton. Big Effects, Small Scale looks at the miniature creation for the train crash. Sacha Baron Cohen: Role of a Lifetime is a fluff piece on Cohen, and in-character. In total, there’s maybe an hour of content, but little of it is memorable or worth your time.
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