'Hugo': Four Stars For 3D

It took a real filmmaker to make me believe again that 3D isn’t just a gimmick and that it has a viable, creative place in cinema, bringing with it a joyous and welcome reminder it is still possible to experience genuine wonder through popular mass market art at the multiplex.

Not a box office stimulation device, not technology steroids pumped into a crummy movie to boost opening weekend, the use of 3D in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant and heartfelt “Hugo” is actually integral to maximizing the movie’s pleasure, and part of the reason it’s the best family film – not children’s movie, you don’t need a kid to have reason to see this blissful escape into 1930’s Paris (and beyond) – ever to use the medium, if not the finest 3D film ever.

Which is why it’s seemed so odd to me that the marketing tactics for the film have played down the 3D element. Checking out the full-color, two page centerpiece ad in my New York Times recently, only 2 of the 11 raves quoted mention it’s a 3D film, and the title includes “in 3D” as if an afterthought.



Perhaps it’s because audiences have felt burned so many times after spending an extra five bucks to wear the glasses for movies where the 3D effect is irrelevant to the story beyond objects being thrust in your face, or an obvious post-production ploy to salvage a crappy flick. Even for genuinely good movies like “Toy Story 3” and “Tangled,” I left the theater thinking that I didn’t really need to fork out the extra Lincoln for the extra dimension. It brought very little more.

But “Hugo” uses the glasses for good, and brings not only an extra dimension to the cinematic experience but the narrative experience as well. Scorsese rarely resorts to cheap tricks, but instead makes the most of both the epic grandeur and intimidating intimacy that 3D can bring to a scene. Yes, there are moments of big budget blowout – a train barreling right at you, a perilous potential plunge, a long tracking shot through a bustling train station – but there are also small moments of claustrophobic power, like an authoritarian police officer jutting his face closer and closer and closer to an intimidated little boy, until it feels like he’s about to bite us.

On one hand, the trailers for the movie don’t even begin to bring it justice, but, then again, a good portion of my pleasure at the movie came from being surprised by its plot twists and character development. “Hugo” is not about an orphan boy who lives in a railway station, though that may boil down the plot to an elevator pitch; it’s actually about the pattern of the universe and the art of cinema itself.

There are many scenes I’d like to talk about to explain why this is Martin Scorsese’s best motion picture, how it is a love paean to the movies, why it feels so restorative and optimistic and perfect for the holiday season. But that would be selfish; the pleasure is in the discovery and you should discover it yourself.

But perhaps I can explain it in a roundabout way. My favorite takeaway moment from Walter Isaakson’s overhyped (how could it not be?) Steve Jobs biography came in a meeting Apple’s CEO had with News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch. Jobs was trying to convince Murdoch that the world was no longer a struggle between ideologies of left and right, blue and red, religion and secular forces, but constructive and destructive ones. Murdoch, a man who can only see the big picture when it pertains to money or power, didn’t get it.

But Jobs, as (mostly) usual, was right. And what Scorsese has done in “Hugo” is a perfect example. 3D can be a transformative narrative technology…in the right, constructive hands. When an actual filmmaker is involved, the full transcendent power of 3D can be tapped and it is truly a new experience, an accentuated art. But in the wrong hands, it’s destructive to the art – it turns people off, feels like a sloppy money grab, keeps them from paying the extra money when a 3D film finally comes along that really deserves it.

So support “Hugo,” and support it in 3D. It’s a wonderful, amazing, beautiful, touching, masterpiece of narrative art. And then maybe somebody’ll pony up the money to allow Scorsese to make another one.

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