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  • Writer's pictureTyler Foster

Hugo 4K UHD Review


Arrow Video

4K UHD Release: July 18, 2023

Video: 1.78:1/2160p/Color

Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 and LPCM 2.0

Subtitles: English SDH

Run Time: 96:25

Director: Martin Scorsese

In 1930s Paris, an orphaned boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) carves out a secret life inside the walls of the Gare Montparnasse train station, where he steals to survive in between fixing the clocks and avoiding a station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) set on kicking him out. One day, one of the station's vendors, a grouchy toymaker (Ben Kingsley), confronts Hugo about his theft of spare parts from his shop. As punishment, the toymaker takes away a treasured notebook that previously belonged to Hugo's late father (Jude Law), filled with drawings and schematics of an automaton he found in a museum attic, which he and Hugo were working on together at the time of his death. Having continued the project alone, Hugo is desperate to get the notebook back, enlisting the help of the vendor's enthusiastic, literary, adventure-hungry goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). What neither of them fully understand is the special meaning that the images of a mechanical boy hold for the vendor -- known to Isabelle as "Papa Georges," but known to people today as one of the most famous film directors of all time.



Adapted from a young adult novel by Brian Selznick, Hugo is a charming (if slightly thin) adventure enriched by the ways it crosses over with director Martin Scorsese's real-life passion for film history and film preservation. The film's plot, which involves the children solving the mystery of Papa Georges' past and various antics involving Sacha Baron Cohen's train inspector, has the straightforward qualities that one would expect from children's entertainment (not in a bad way or anything, just that Hugo is not necessarily a thematically complex film, even if the storytelling does fit together fairly nicely, like one of Hugo's machines). The richer stuff is there for fellow film aficionados, which explains why the movie seems especially beloved by certain nerdy niche audiences.


To address the film's flaws first: the biggest weakness is probably the Cohen material. Nothing against Cohen, who is not only doing what was asked of him, but doing a perfectly fine job, more that Scorsese does not seem to have much of a knack for and/or interest in the type of Inspector Clouseau-style physical comedy that the Station Inspector character is designed for. Furthermore, the threat he poses to Hugo never feels real (the movie is hardly about him living in the train station), leaving his appearances feeling like time we could be spending with characters and stories we're more invested in. Even a brief aside for the grown-ups, a theoretically humanizing moment between the Inspector and a flower merchant he has his eye on (Emily Mortimer), doesn't fully succeed because the character still feels too much like a cartoon. A later scene, built on the foundation of a brief backstory and a fully dramatic moment from Cohen, is far more effective at giving the character some dimension.



Instead, it is clear that Scorsese's passion lies with Papa Georges, who is of course actually Georges Méliès, director of 1902's A Trip to the Moon, and over 500 other films during his prolific career. Even before Hugo and Isabelle discover this, they sneak into a movie theater and watch a bit of Harold Lloyd's Safety Last (1923), and once Georges' identity is revealed (but before they've confronted him), a kindly bookseller (Christopher Lee) at the train station that Isabelle knows directs them to the Film Academy Library, where they learn about L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896). Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker fill the last half of the movie with clips from silent movies, including The General (1926) and Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916), plus of course, lots of Méliès' work. Not only do the clips serve as an introduction to the birth of cinema, and illustrate the essential nature of film preservation as part of our cultural history (one of Scorsese's personal passions, and a point further addressed, literally and figuratively, by Michael Stuhlbarg's character, an author named René Tabard), they also allow the viewer to see the choices that Scorsese makes to evoke those films within Hugo, not least of these moments being a climactic scene where Hugo finds himself clinging to the arm of a clock just like Lloyd in Safety Last. Scorsese also draws on some real photographs from the time, including one of a famous crash at the same train station, and one of Méliès sitting in his toy shop.


It seems likely that using 3D technology was seen as another way to take advantage of the possibility of film as it evolves over time (especially considering Scorsese's subtle use of historical filmmaking techniques, like 2D animation and stop-motion animation). Although I watched Hugo in 2D (more on that in the video section), Scorsese uses his famous long takes and lots of intelligent blocking to take advantage of depth in ways that are sophisticated and clever. Only a few moments, such as when a bunch of computer-generated drawings burst from a dropped box, or the text used for the titles, feel awkwardly reverse-engineered. Another sophisticated and clever element is the performances: Butterfield, Moretz, Kingsley, Lee, Stuhlbarg, and the late Helen McCrory as Jehanne D'Alcy, aka Mama Jeanne, all bring a wonderful, light-touch tenderness to their performances. In particular, Kingsley's arc is very satisfying, without any edges being sanded off for fear of being too scary or mean-spirited. The tenor of the performances speaks to why the Cohen stuff comes off as clunky: inside this oddball contraption is a gentle film, one that takes an earnest pleasure in the kind of fantasy that the movies allow us to indulge in.



Video

Hugo was released in 2011, before 4K DIs were the standard, and as such, this new 1.78:1 2160p presentation is an upscale from a 2K DI master. That said, I found this to be a pretty satisfying UHD image, even if there's a sense of the ceiling created by this not being "native 4K". That sensation is most evident in fleeting glimpses of ultra-fine detail -- while nuanced skin texture and things like that are still present in the image, one has to study medium shots and wide shots a little more carefully to see those elements compared to some other "true" 4K presentations of films around the same age. Of course, some of that may also be a side effect of the film's stylized look, full of golden highlights and chilly blues, all of which are rendered beautifully via the film's new HDR grade. Shadows are rich and inky without evidence of crush, and the overall clarity and depth of the image as a whole is quite impressive, richly rendering Scorsese's wide, busy frames filled with crowds, cityscapes, and elaborate production design -- there are times when even this 2D version looks almost three dimensional. This was my first time seeing Hugo in over a decade, and my first time seeing it in 2D, so I can't say whether owners of the Paramount Blu-ray will be as enthusiastic about it as an upgrade to what sounds like a perfectly satisfactory existing release, but in and of itself, this struck me as a visual winner.


Also included in the set is a 3D Blu-ray version of Hugo. Sadly, I no longer have the equipment to view Hugo in 3D. Surprisingly, while I had expected that the 3D version would be a port of Paramount's 2012 presentation, that does not seem to be the case. Although this information is second-hand, chatter online says that Arrow's 3D presentation uses the screen as the "farthest forward" point in the 3D presentation, and that the 3D effect is created by adding depth that goes back from the screen, whereas Paramount's original release has objects and elements that actually appear forward from the screen. Those who prefer Hugo in 3D format may want to hang onto their older 3D discs just in case (it'd be an easy swap, too, given the two added extras to Arrow's edition are duplicated on the UHD disc as well). Personally, while my memories of seeing the Paramount Blu-ray are pretty vague, my personal feeling was that the 3D was a little distracting, given Hugo has the tenor of a smaller, character-driven drama. I also can't say how I would've felt comparing the old and new presentations of Hugo in terms of which approach was superior. As mentioned earlier, Scorsese and Richardson have done plenty to take advantage of the added dimension, but if even if I had the equipment, I'd probably be more likely to watch a movie like this without the added visual flair (or at least until they invent a glasses-free 3D format).


Audio

As far as I can tell, the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track included on Arrow's UHD is the same 7.1 track from Paramount's original Blu-ray release years ago. Those who have seen the movie may be inclined to think of the chases with the Chief Inspector or Hugo's spectacular train crash dream as demo moments, and they are, but I found myself enamored with the less-flashy moments. In particular, the various sequences inside Hugo's train station home are nicely evocative, filled with the satisfying rhythmic clicking and clunking of gears and wheels, and steam hissing from pipes. The track also presents Howard Shore's score with a gentle beauty befitting its music box qualities. English SDH subtitles are also provided.



Extras


4K UHD (Disc 1) and 2D/3D Blu-ray (Disc 2)

  • Audio commentary by filmmaker and author Jon Spira – Spira has been enlisted for this new commentary thanks to his work on the newly republished book The Long-Lost Autobiography of George Méliès, a 32-page memoir Méliès wrote before his death that had never been translated into English and which was previously unavailable to read. One might expect, then, that the commentary would focus on Méliès, but Spira delivers an impressively balanced track with very few pauses. He discusses the use of 3D, including the evolution of the technology throughout movie history, constructing sets for 3D, and his appreciation of the film in that format, the box office failure of Hugo, the movie's large ensemble cast and their careers, the score, and much more on top of his obvious appreciation and knowledge of Méliès. Much of this information is covered from various angles throughout the disc, but this is still an enjoyable listen.

  • Theatrical Trailer

Bonus Blu-ray Disc (Disc 3)

  • Interviews – Three lengthy new interviews with people involved with the film are offered here:

    • First, author Brian Selznick (54:49). Selznick, who is in fact a distant relative of legendary King Kong producer David O. Selznick, explains his childhood love of Méliès and other silent films from the era, as well as illusionist Harry Houdini, how Maurice Sendak helped encourage him to write The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic Press, 2007), the style of the book ("not quite a graphic novel") and how he hoped to make it cinematic even on the page, the unique way in which Scorsese's adaptation is faithful to the book on an unexpected level. In the second half, he shifts more toward the experience of having the book optioned, going to the set, being in the film, a conversation he had with the late Helen McCrory, admiration for specific moments in McCrory and Michael Stuhlbarg's performances, and seeing the movie for the first time. Selznick is enthusiastic and articulate, and while this is one of the longer solo interviews I've seen on any disc, it's very charming and full of excellent stories.

    • Next, cinematographer Robert Richardson (40:02) speaks at length about shooting Hugo in 3D, including information on the rigs used (and not used), having to play catch-up compared to the filmmakers working on Avatar, being able to see the shots in 3D even in "video village" to make sure they're working (and post-production adjustments), how much detail in an image is too much detail for the viewer to process or for the filmmakers to deal with, and playing around with color temperature. He also speaks a little bit about first working with Scorsese (and the mild faux pas he made), as well as the usual process when working with him (and, in passing, working with Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino), including photographs of some of Scorsese's script notes. This is less about anecdotes and far more about the nuts and bolts of the process (even though it is not strictly technical, something Richardson himself comments on during the interview).

    • Finally, composer Howard Shore (13:49) discusses his inspirations for the score, drawing on musicians and styles of the time as well as specific scenes and motifs from the film itself, as well as of course evoking the style of silent film scores, his process working with Scorsese and building up the final piece, as well as how his work is supported and furthered by other people working on the film, such as the sound designer, or Scorsese's longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It's fascinating to see brief images of his "sketchbook" where he writes the notes out on blank score sheets.

  • "Ian Christie on Hugo" (23:12) - This is a little appreciation by the British film scholar, who is acquainted with Scorsese and visited the set. These are not pre-written thoughts, with Christie going through various thoughts on the film in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way. He speaks at length on how the film fits into Scorsese's career and speaks to his recurring interests, his thoughts on the film in 3D, and even criticizes the film a little bit, for fictionalizing the story of Georges Méliès.

  • "Secret Machines: Hugo and Film Preservation" (18:17) - Scout Tafoya created this video essay exploring the themes and motifs of Hugo, examining how they fit into Scorsese's career as a filmmaker, and how they speak to Scorsese's well-known passion for film preservation. A brisk and enjoyable piece. (In the interest of full disclosure, while we're not close, Tafoya and I are Twitter mutuals.)

  • "Creating New Worlds" (37:43) - For a deeper dive into Méliès, film journalist Julien Dupuy (who also played a very small role in the creation of Hugo) tours the Georges Méliès Museum in Paris. Dupuy takes a tour of the museum while also providing historical background on Méliès. The piece clears up some of the differences between the movie's depiction of the director and real life, with no doubt will come as a relief to Ian Christie. Dupuy's specialty is writing about special effects, so the piece devotes a reasonable amount of time on Méliès as an illusionist and pioneer in the art of visual trickery, although (as one can tell by the length), it is just a very comprehensive overview in general. Throughout the piece, as Dupuy discusses the relevant moments in Méliès' life, we are treated to all sorts of archival materials, including some of Méliès' self-portraits and other drawings, posters of his magic shows, photographs, some of his illusions, props from his films, and other ephemera. The one note about this extra is that big chunks of it are filmed in some sort of unusual framerate, which causes unusual motion blur throughout the entire piece. A little distracting, but presumably a little quirk that could not be fixed after the material was recorded.

  • "Papa Georges Made Movies" (10:05) - A second piece in which a film historian explores a museum, in this case Pamela Hutchinson and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, respectively. This one is far more brief, with Hutchinson discussing some of the items at the aforementioned museum in voice-over rather than going on a guided tour. Those looking for a quicker historical primer among the extras will really enjoy this one, especially given Hutchinson's enthusiasm -- those who watch Hugo with their children and find that the kids want to know more about the history of film should check this out.

  • "Méliès at the Time of Hugo" (7:43) - The final new extra on the disc is another piece with Jon Spira. As the title indicates, this focuses on what Méliès was doing during the period in which Hugo is set. Again, Christie should be pleased to see this, which sets the record straight on how the real events in Méliès life went down.

  • Original Paramount Featurettes - All of the bonus features from Paramount's 2012 Blu-ray of Hugo are included here, which add up to almost another hour in length. They include: "Shoot the Moon - The Making of Hugo" (19:48), "The Cinemagician: Georges Méliès" (15:40), "The Mechanical Man at the Heart of Hugo" (12:45), "Big Effects, Small Scale" (5:54), and "Sacha Baron Cohen: The Role of a Lifetime" (3:33). Not only are these extras appreciated from a completionist's sake, it's also worth noting that this is the only place on the disc where you'll hear directly from Scorsese or any of the cast.



Conclusion

Although I'm personally waiting for a deluxe, remastered version of Scorsese's criminally underappreciated 1999 drama/thriller Bringing Out the Dead, Hugo is a charming movie, and Arrow has given it a nice upgrade in the extras department to celebrate the film's arrival on 4K UHD. Although it sounds like the 3D presentation has undergone a potentially controversial change, the UHD is solid despite being an upscale, and the new bonus features are very good.


The images on this page are taken from the included Blu-ray copy, NOT the 4K UHD, and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images.

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