4 out of 4 stars
When it was revealed at about this same time last year that Martin Scorsese was making a 3-D children's movie, most of his loyal fan base recoiled. The same man who made some of greatest films of the last quarter century -- all of them with decidedly adult content -- is going to make a kids' movie?! In 3-D??!! Say it ain't so, Marty.
After the initial shock wore off, an air of guarded optimism took over and glass-half-full types took to rationalization. If anyone can make a 3-D movie that looks good AND has a great, well-told story, its Scorsese and if he succeeds; if he really nails it -- it will be superb.
Superb doesn't begin to describe "Hugo." With one teeny-tiny exception, every facet of this movie achieves a level of perfection never previously seen in a movie. The premise, the writing, the acting, the editing, costume and set designs, the little details, the special effects -- the direction -- everything. Yes, even the 3D is impeccable.
Critics and mass audiences -- groups of people that rarely agree on anything -- are blessed with a movie such as "Hugo" -- if they're real lucky -- once every decade or two. If somebody else delivers a movie this good prior to 2020, it will be nothing short of a cataclysmic. Best movie of the year? It's the best movie of this young 12-year-old century, period (unseating "The Departed").
While going into the details of the plot might prod some on the fence into giving "Hugo" a shot, it will disservice truly interested viewers, remove the element of surprise and squash the myriad of twists. In this instance, being vague about what happens is infinitely preferable.
Once you get past the broad "children/3D" stumbling block, the story begins to dovetail and mushroom in most unexpected, joyous and sometimes frightening ways. Both the title character (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) are orphans and both are in possession of the kind of artistic talents children their age (12) don't usually have, but not excessively so. They're not wunderkinds or freaks or tortured geniuses in training, they're just inquisitive, smart and appropriately tentative around each other.
While Isabelle is a voracious reader, Hugo prefers movies. She introduces him on to the classics and he takes her to her first movie (Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last"). To call what is developing between them "puppy love" would be accurate but also a huge generalization. The relationship between Hugo and Isabella -- like all the others in film -- is slightly complex and firmly grounded in reality. Other than two dream sequences, there are no elements of fantasy or magic. Everything that takes place in the movie could actually happen in real life.
About halfway through, it becomes clear that Scorsese's dedication to film preservation starts working its way into the plot and writer John Logan ("Gladiator," "The Aviator," "Rango") brilliantly does so without remotely force-fitting it in. Employing the most modern, up-to-date movie-making technology, Scorsese and Logan give everyone a most welcomed, brief, highly informative and entertaining lesson on the origins of film without ever preaching or drifting into dry, listless minutia.
Now back to that teeny-tiny exception ...
The movie (based on the novel by Brian Selznick -- a twice removed first cousin of movie pioneer David O. Selznick) is set in post World War I Paris where nobody speaks French and everyone talks in a British accent. While it's very nice looking at the Paris skyline while listening to the accordion-based score, there's nothing contained in the details of the story that would have prevented the filmmakers from changing the setting to London. It would have served everyone so much better and easily removed the movies' only facet of artificiality.
It took 35 working years for Scorsese to get his first and only Oscar. Chances are very good he won't have to wait nearly that long for the second. This film is the work of a genius at the top of his game that exceeds all expectations and is literally a movie for anyone with a pulse.
To suggest that it might be better than say "The Departed," "Raging Bull" or "GoodFellas" would be comparing apples to oranges and patently unfair to Scorsese. The fact that the same person could have made all of those films and "Hugo" is testimony to his talent and range and provides the proof -- if any was still needed -- that he doesn't just make violent mob movies. It's safe to say that "Hugo" is Scorsese's best film ever that isn't rated "R."
By anyone's standards, this is quite simply one of the finest motion pictures ever made. Don't you dare miss it. (Paramount)