I've been watching movies for quite a while; and once you've been doing that for a few decades, experiencing pure magic at the cinema becomes rare. Oh, you can be entertained, and you can marvel at spectacles such as Avatar, and you can be briefly transported by a moment here and there in a film. But getting sucked into a movie from beginning to end, to simply give up critical thinking and allow the filmmaker to lead you wherever he or she wants to go? That experience, so common when one watches movies as a child, becomes fleetingly rare as the decades mount.
Which is why I found Martin Scorsese's new film HUGO so amazing. From the first shot -- an incredible tracking shot across a crowded 1930s Paris train station, as the camera zooms by scores of people, each of whom is a story in himself or herself, into the eyes of the title character -- to the emotional ending -- I was helpless. Scorsese had me in the palm of his hand.
HUGO is, at heart, a children's film. It is devoid of cussing, of sex or graphic violence; it is told from the point of view of a child; and most of the scenes are shot from a child's-eye level. Perhaps the candy-bright child's-film look is one of the reasons the movie slipped past my intellectual defenses. Yet like the best children's film and literature, the movie is profound, filled with dialogue that touches upon universal truths and images that frighten and thrill.
What is HUGO about? It's historical fiction, although I won't reveal the particular history upon which it draws (and it's a shame that plot point has been revealed in the publicity surrounding the film). It's not science fiction, fantasy, or steampunk, despite its fascination with clockwork, gears, and locomotive steam. What it is about is family, and the relationship between people and machines, and the history of movies as a mechanical means of capturing dreams and making them visible to others -- all subjects that should resonate with Scorsese, the legendary champion of moviemaking. It's about healing, and coming to terms with loss and failure.
Most of all, it's about storytelling, verbal and visual. The movie tells a story about characters enthralled with stories, characters who find a huge story closer than they could imagine.
HUGO is shot in 3D, and that's how it should be enjoyed. It highlights the difference between the standard popcorn movie that is shot in 2D and converted to 3D (because that's what's hot nowadays), and a movie that is made in 3D, by a filmmake who uses the device as a storytelling tool. It's the difference between a colorized black and white movie and a film in which color is used to convey emotions and plot points. The 3D in HUGO is part of the film's magic, and shows that the process may not be a passing fad after all.
Movie fans of all ages should be glad films like HUGO are still coming out -- films that are toy boxes full of delights, but also toy boxes intricately carved and full of depth.