Hugo, which doubles as Martin Scorsese's first family film and his first project in 3D, is a beautiful picture in just about every way. It's lovingly designed and photographed and tells an engaging and wonderful story, while also sneaking in a brief for the director's pet cause of film preservation.
Based on Brian Selznick's kid-oriented 2007, graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo tells the story of the 12-year-old boy of that name (Asa Butterfield), living in the clock of a train station in 1930s Paris. Hugo's adventure takes him to a young girl (Chloe Grace Moritz, from Let Me In and Kick Ass), and he's later introduced to the long-lost director of turn-of-the-20th-century short films. There's also a mysterious automaton and a vengeful, Javert-like train station cop (Sacha Baron Cohen).
After a year of lazy 3D blockbusters, Hugo has by far the most elaborate and well-considered 3D design of the year; it'll be an upset if Dante Ferretti's production design and Robert Richardson's cinematography don't become Oscar favorites (the same goes for Howard Shore's score.) The train station set, in particular, is a wonder to behold.
The movie, a clear labor of love for Scorsese, masterfully repeats visual and tonal motifs, while subtly foreshadowing all sorts of future events. It's also probably the first kids film in history to double as a propaganda film for the cause of classic film preservation. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.
Of course, it's also nice that after the silent era was ignored by Hollywood for decades, there are two movies released within a couple weeks of each other (Hugo and The Artist) that are both amazing films and pay loving tribute to that period of cinema. (*You can go see the automaton that was the inspiration for the movie right here in Philadelphia at the Franklin Institute, which was also where I saw the film.)
Also hitting theaters this week,The Muppets, the first big screen outing by Jim Henson's beloved characters in 13 years, is a loving, faithful and very entertaining adaptation that gets what the Muppets are about and why people love them.
Co-written and shepherded to the screen by actor Jason Segel, the new Muppet film is an earnest attempt to bring the Muppet universe back to prominence and recapture the magic of the '70s Muppet Show and the trio of big screen films made prior to Henson's 1990 death.
To disclose my biases: I love the Muppets and have my entire life. It's a love that I've passed on to my 22-month-old son through the magic of YouTube clips of from old Sesame Street and Muppet Show episodes as well as the movies. Kermit is my son's favorite character, to the point where he screams for "Frog!" whenever he as much as sees my computer.
So as you can guess, I'm pretty invested in this movie. Which means it would have greatly upset me if the filmmakers had screwed it up.
They didn't screw it up.
Written by Segel and Nicholas Stoller and directed by Da Ali G Show and Flight of the Conchords veteran James Bobin, the movie is very much in the spirit of the three Henson-associated Muppet films, especially The Muppets Take Manhattan, which I consider the entire franchise's gold standard.
Segel plays Gary, a Muppet fan living in a small Midwestern town along with his brother Walter, who is himself a Muppet (the film never gets around to explaining how it is that a human and a Muppet came to be brothers).
Along with Segel's girlfriend (Amy Adams), Gary and Walter travel to Los Angeles on vacation, during which they discover the decrepit Muppet Theater, and must reunite the old gang in order to save it from destruction by an evil oilman (Chris Cooper).
The new film borrows the plot of Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind, as the Muppets are portrayed as stars from a different, long-ago time, reuniting for one final show, with Kermit and Miss Piggy, of course, in the Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara roles. The film also finds the time for Walter to undertake a Dreams From My Father-like quest to discover his identity, as brilliantly examined in a musical number called "Am I a Man, or a Muppet?"
The movie, indeed, is a full-fledged musical, featuring first-rate songs by Bret Mckenzie, also from Flight of the Conchords. Some old favorites ("The Rainbow Connection," "Mahna Mahna" and of course the "Muppet Show" theme song) are sprinkled in too, and there's a subtle homage to "Just One Person" – the song famously sung by the Muppets and their puppeteers at Henson's memorial service – that almost made me stand and applaud.
Perhaps best of all, the movie is true to these characters and understands what's great about them. Notwithstanding recent complaints from Frank Oz and other old Muppet hands, there aren't any character moments that don't feel right.
Which isn't to say every choice is the right one. There are a few times when the film goes all meta and the characters comment on what's happening; true, this keeps with Muppet tradition but it gets a bit too cute. Nothing about an extended running gag involving Jack Black is particularly funny, there's absolutely no excuse for using Starship's "We Built This City" unironically, and the less said about Chris Cooper's rap number, the better.
I say this not to denigrate the ensuing Muppet films, which weren't entirely worthless; I was in a wedding last year in which the bride and groom used a song from Muppet Christmas Carol as part of the service. But it's just so exhilarating to know that the Muppets are back, in an entertaining and worthy movie clearly made by people who love the characters as much as we do.
The Silver Screen Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Roll Credits: The Muppets
Directed by: James Bobin
Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Beaker
Length: 1hour and 38 mins.
The Silver Screen Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Roll Credits: Hugo
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moritz, Ben Kingsley, and Sacha Baron Cohen
Length: 2 hrs and 7 mins.