The Secret in the Clockwork
Hugo oozes artistic sentimentality when celebrating human ingenuity. The sappiness is the best thing about it, turning Hugo into an elaborate, personal fairy tale with figments of truth sprinkled in.
It’s the small touches that make Hugo work. A stop motion wind-up mouse is a total delight. Star Asa Butterfield, sitting in this clock tower home, the gears spinning to create flicker akin to a film projector. Or, a small role played by Richard Griffiths with a performance that recalls the great Edmund Gwen (notable for Miracle on 34th Street, but a man who began his career in silent cinema). Hugo adores filmmaking, from the artistry to the surrealism to the fictional escape to the emotional drama; all of it defines Hugo.
Hugo focuses on celebrating the artist and filmmaker in the now
Hugo focuses on celebrating the artist and filmmaker in the now
Butterfield plays an orphan, post-World War I, raised as a tinkerer. The story of film is much about the imagery as the creative technology that allowed it happen. The finished moving images matter, but designing the camera, the cogs and the gears and the screws – that’s fascinating too.
Some dozen years after Hugo released, and with this 4K disc happening during an actor/writer strike, there’s a somberness to this historical fiction. George Melies (Ben Kingsley) only wanted his art seen; that defined him. When his work was melted down to make shoes, he quit, and spent years near penniless. Hugo’s happy ending doesn’t concern finding the movies themselves or their preservation. Neither is it concerned with the playful romances developed over the course of this story, even if they land in expected places.
Rather, Hugo focuses on celebrating the artist and filmmaker in the now rather than examining their portfolio after death. The smile produced by Kingsley as an audience sits in a theater to see his – and only his – surrealism is clearly therapeutic, the piece missing in his life for decades as he earned so little peddling cheap toys. To, him the wait was worth it, and if he were somehow still alive to see Hugo, the fantastical sights and magical realism of the story would likely bring him similar joy. It’s not about ego, but the artistic mindset and the need for validation. Hugo flawlessly captures that nuance, and that results in a masterpiece for any other filmmaker. But this is Scorsese. That’s usually all he makes.
While Hugo is one of the preeminent examples of the 2010’s obsession with orange and teal color, the Dolby Vision addition helps Hugo by establishing greater density. It’s still restrictive and limited, but the beautiful oranges and deeper blues look far more attractive here than they once did. In particular, flesh tones show superb precision and satisfying warmth. Still, it’s worth noting the overall limitations in variety by design. The vintage sepia-like aesthetic remains dominant, like early two-tone color film.
Originally a 2K-finished movie, that doesn’t appear changed, if it even could be. But, while Hugo is still representative of an early push toward all-digital filmmaking, the clarity makes up for any loss in resolution. Not a speck of noise appears on screen, making Hugo totally free from visual defects common to this period. The glossiness (naturally so, not the result of tinkering) is something to admire.
Black levels follow the visual design with a softer approach, often veering just shy of true black, and instead taking on the blue-ish tint that surrounds them. That changes little on UHD, although Hugo does nail some superlative depth when in the bowels of the clock tower. Highlights stay conservative, bright and enhanced, but with a soft guiding hand.
A true award winner that produces a sense of place, space, and fluidity, every ounce of precision afforded to this DTS-HD 7.1 mix is graciously taken. Set in motion within the world of clocks and clicking gears, every train station interior will produce something that requires aural attention.
This is evident before the company logos stop their march across the screen. Hugo moves into a master shot of the station, busy travelers panning to the sides and flawlessly behind as the virtual camera pushes forward. For all the visuals do to set scale, the expansiveness of the audio does it better. There’s a sense of constant width and depth that isn’t complete without the directional qualities.
The myriad of chases leads to an increase in saturation, a particularly tense one involving the kids almost silent until the panic sets in. The flood of adults begins to swell until it encompasses all of the soundfield for the rest of the scene. Subtle cues, including a high exterior on a clock, is given dramatic tension as the winds pick up, and not in a traditional, swirling way. The effect isn’t supposed to be noticed so much as it’s designed to be absorbed.
The only dramatic disappointment is a train crash, a replication of a true life event in which the vehicle bursts from the upper floor of the station through the window. Bass is seemingly forgotten, yet it was there when the engines were droning on seconds ago. One can logically assume a train that falls 20 or so feet onto concrete will deliver a bit of a thump. This mix doesn’t think so.
Author Jon Spira handles the commentary track, and that’s on the 4K and Blu-ray discs. Arrow also includes the 3D version on the Blu-ray, so you can safely retire that previous release. On a third disc, the other bonuses reside. Novel writer Brian Selznick is up first with a fresh interview and his take on the film. Director of photography Robert Richardson is another new interview, as is the next with composer Howard Shore. Editor and historian Ian Christie finishes up the interview section.
There’s still more to see, and again, all new. Author/historian Julien Dupuy pens a visual essay on Georges Melies. Historian Pamela Hutchinson digs into cinema’s earliest days in her bonus feature. Jon Spira is back for his visual essay on Milies before Arrow includes the five featurettes found on the previous Blu-ray.
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A beautiful, romanticized appreciation of cinema’s earliest days, Hugo celebrates the icons and moments that made film so remarkable.
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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our subscription-exclusive set of 53 full resolution uncompressed 4K screen shots grabbed directly from the UHD: