Scorsese taps into his youthful cinephilia

Reviewed in conjunction with Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures Of Tintin

Judged on past form, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese are the least likely directors to embrace digital and 3D. These are filmmakers who have continued to shoot on celluloid and edit with scissors and glue long after the digital revolution.

And yet, as Orson Welles once said, cinema is the greatest train set a child could wish for. Is it really surprising that Spielberg and Scorsese’s curiosity would get the better of them, or that they should revert to giddy schoolboys when trying out cinema’s latest railway extensions?

Regardless of the delivery system these films share a faith in the old-school pleasures of the well-directed film. It’s not about technology, but talent.

Mo-cap debut Tintin sees Spielberg in the most relaxed form since... well, ever. A director with nothing to prove, he’s realised there’s little point tackling material he isn’t 100 per cent committed to (Indiana Jones 4, anybody?) and opted for a childhood favourite in Hergé’s comic-book heroics.

A backwards step? Maybe. There’s a lack of emotional/dramatic resonance in the bequiffed hero’s quest. But perhaps that’s the point. The Spielberg who insisted on going dark circa Temple Of Doom to Munich always fretted about being taken seriously.

Here, the rediscovery of cinema’s fairground attraction has unshackled those pretensions. The key word in the title is Adventures, and Tintin crackles with fun-while-it-lasts energy. Spielberg uses mo-cap to devise slapstick set-pieces impossible to choreograph in live-action.

There are sequences here, notably the ‘single-take’ Moroccan chase, where the assemblage of jokes resembles a game of Mousetrap. Throughout, scriptwriters Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish act like crazed fanboys, treating Spielberg like their own mo-cap project to see what the great director can do under their control.

Hugo shares the same passion for the possibilities of cinema. When it was announced that Scorsese was making a kids’ film, few anticipated that the kid in question would be Scorsese himself – yet Hugo taps right into his youthful cinephilia.

In fact, after The Aviator and documentary A Letter To Elia, it’s his third film about a fellow director in a decade. With zippily edited chases snaking through retro sets, the film rivals Spielberg for blockbuster panache, but Scorsese has always been more of a mechanic than a showman.

Where Tintin takes delight in playing with surfaces (chiefly, glass), Scorsese’s more interested in what’s going on behind the mirror. The depth of field which made his use of big-screen 3D so beguiling is still discernable in the camera’s lingering attention on cameras and clockwork. (The 3D Blu-ray was unavailable for review.)

Hugo, meanwhile, is more cerebral, Scorsese’s thesis that filmmaking has always been a machine. Today’s tricks are no different from the innovations with which cinema’s pioneers wowed audiences.

For a so-called kids’ film, the kid of the title (Asa Butterfield) is often sidelined in favour of lectures about the story’s real-life hero, fantasist George Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley. Then again, Jamie Bell’s Tintin needs Andy Serkis’ rambunctious portrayal of Captain Haddock to get motivated.

If there’s a shared message, it’s that Hollywood’s young ’uns might have the flashy tools, but it takes a grown-up to have some reel fun.

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