Hugo is not simply the best movie I've seen this year, but it has immediately gained entrance into the Jeff Katz All-Time Greats list. It's touching (though not cloying), funny (though not buffoonish), effect laden (though not empty) and educational (though not pedantic). Hugo is as magical as the films of Melies it brings back to life.
I'm not going to recount the plot; you can look that up elsewhere.
After preview upon preview of CGI movies to come (I'm looking at you Tin Tin), it was a big adjustment to Hugo. Here was a large movie, an epic of imagination, that had a cast of humans! And big time humans like Ben Kingsley, Jude Law and Christoper Lee. It took a while for me to get used to it, like those 10-15 minutes of Shakespeare that one has to pass through to reorient their ears and get the hang of the language. That sense of semi-reality only added to the storybook experience.
Sacha Baron Cohen as the Station Inspector. Is there anybody funnier? He brings a sly and somewhat perverse characterization to the movie which gives it great depth. All the characters have something happening; there's not a useless member of the cast.
Seeing Georges Melies' films, even in clip form, on a giant screen is pure heaven. The hand tinted frames bleed gloriously and still, over a century later, you wonder "How did he do that?" My lord, it's wonderful. Scorsese manages to infuse screen history into a child's tale and, in doing so, makes the best film about the spell that movies weave. (No disrespect meant for Sullivan's Travels). In great part, Hugo is about film preservation and restoration, a cause dear to the director's heart. He makes a tragedy out of something long forgotten, and that isn't easy. The scenes of Melies' studio and the filming of the filming of the films is spectacular.
It's been said that Hugo makes the most of 3D. It does. The special effects are totally organic. There's no flash, no in-your-face moment. There's a point being made here, and that point is subtly and quite cleverly played out not once, but twice. Train Entering the Railroad Station, one of the first silents, is simply that: a train entering the depot. Much has been made of how the audience of 1898 recoiled in horror as the steaming locomotive approached, fearful that it may leap from screen to lap. Scorsese shows that two times.
Think about that. An audience of sentient adults, all clearly in three-dimensions and in color, could not separate themselves from a flat screen presentation of a black and white train. They were truly frightened that the one world would infiltrate the other. It worked, and set the table for the cheap 3D jolts to come: the thrown spear, the reaching hand, any old protuberance that would make the audience jump.
Scorsese's 3D does none of that and yet results in more genuine emotional reaction than any stunt. It does what it's supposed to, presenting depth with reality, not as a hoax. In that way, Hugo feels real and swallows you up in its world. It was a shame to leave it.