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Blu-ray Review: Hugo (2011)

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Hugo won five out of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for, and the same level of artistry and craftsmanship that went into its creation is maintained in its impressive Blu-ray release. Though it may seem surprising director Martin Scorsese would make a film based on Brain Selznick’s Caldecott Medal-winning children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, when the plot’s mystery is revealed, it becomes obvious why the material was such a natural fit for him.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a 12-year-old orphan living in a Parisian train station in the 1930s. Unbeknownst to anyone there, he lives in the building and keeps the clocks running on time after being taught/forced by his alcoholic Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), whose job it is. It’s a secret that has to be kept or the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) will send him to the orphanage. Hugo has a knack for mechanical things, which he learned from his late father (Jude Law), so the job is easy for him.

Hugo’s father left behind an automaton, a man-shaped mechanical device found at a museum, but they hadn’t got it in working order before his death. Being the only connection to his late father, Hugo desperately strives to repair it, leading him to steal parts from a toyshop run by an old man (Sir Ben Kingsley). The man catches Hugo and finds his notebook filled with mechanical sketches, including designs of the automaton. He is momentarily dazed by what he finds and then threatens to destroy the book.

Hugo follows the man home and meets a young lady his own age, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). She reveals the man is her godfather and refers to him as Papa Georges. She promises to help Hugo, excited to be taking part in an adventure similar to the ones she’s read so much about. As they work together, they find clues and solve puzzles that lead to repairing more than the automaton.

Hugo starts off so slow the pacing will likely turn off viewers as the layers of the plot are wound together. I’d be surprised if kids of today could stay engaged. Viewers of any age able to stick with it will be rewarded with a story that shines a light on the early days of cinema, including some great recreations from that era. Scorsese and his team do a great job, as expected, with the framing and camera movement. No surprise that the cinematography won an Oscar.

The cast members are very good in their roles, even the small parts, though Cohen didn’t completely fit well. The character doesn’t have much depth in the early going, which should have been fleshed out earlier. As an actor, Cohen has too much of a modern air about him that worked against the time period.

The Hugo Blu-ray is one of the most impressive of the year. The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at 1.78:1. The color palette exhibits rich hues, though the teal and orange, which is stronger then I remember seeing in theaters, unfortunately stand out more than natural. Blacks are deep and shadow delineation is strong. The clarity of the image is razor sharp with super fine detail seen in textured surfaces and objects such as gears, both real and CGI. Specks of dust can be seen floating in shafts of light. The only defects noticed were brief moments of aliasing due to the patterns in clothing. For example, Lisette’s dress in the station and Isabelle’s jacket in the library during Chapter 9.

The audio is available as DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. Dialogue is always intelligible. Howard Shore’s score and scene ambiance can be heard in the surrounds. Trains noticeably pass across channels and voices are positioned in the soundscape, creating a sense of space. There is a scene where the audio could be considered to come up short though it may have been intentional. At one point, a train crashes through the station. As it hurtles through the building, tearing up the cement floor and knocking things out of its path, the audio, particularly the bass, is not as powerful as expected. There could be a simple reason for that, but it’s not until the scene is over that the possibility presents itself.

Though not as many as I would have liked the disc comes with Special Features, all presented in HD. “Shoot the Moon (The Making of Hugo)” (20 min) finds the cast and crew doing a lot of backslapping as they talk about how great everyone was to work with. “The Cinemagician, Georges Méliès” (16 min) offers a brief biography on one of the first legends in cinema. Interviewees include Méliès’ great-great-granddaughter. “The Mechanical Man at the Heart of Hugo” (13 min) is a fascinating look at the history of automatons. “Big Effects, Small Scale” (6 min) is a brief featurette looking at how they created a special-effect shot. Considering the film won an Oscar for this type of work, I would have liked more in this area. “Sacha Baron Cohen: Role of a Lifetime” (3 min) is a silly piece about Cohen’s approach to the film. The Blu-ray is available with a DVD and Digital Copy.

While maybe not fair to point out what’s not included, a Scorsese commentary track would have been great, considering how well versed he is in cinema history and what a master craftsman he is. Maybe it will be included on later editions of the Blu-ray. Also, I am surprised Georges Méliès original films are not included? It seems like a no-brainer.

Though the story and pacing won’t be for everyone, I’d recommend Hugo to those who appreciate seeing outstanding work in different areas of film production and to those who like to study Scorsese’s work.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • Henry Hill

    Too slow for me. I gave up on it