A beautiful and deeply touching study of art, love, and imagination, Hugo is a rare treasure.
Score: * * * * * (out of 5)
Rated: PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking
Movies are special. They take you to different places and times and provide, for a couple of hours, an escape from reality. Such a powerful medium is not always recognized, and it seems that very few directors recognize this power, and take it seriously. Martin Scorsese is one director who does, however. More than almost any director working today, Scorsese has labeled himself as a massive fan of film, and his diverse filmography, that ranges from dramas, to biopics, to documentaries, to thrillers, shows that. Now, Scorsese can add a family film to that list. Adapting Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese applies his profound love for cinema into a celebration of art, and one of the best films he has yet done.
The titular character (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan, living in the walls of a Paris station, maintaining the clocks and watching the ongoing lives of the people who spend their time working at the station. Watching these smaller stories fit together is a joy that is shard by Hugo as he will frequently move between the clocks in the station to watch romances develop and friendships flourish. The inhabitants of the station are themselves a part of some giant metaphorical clock. Hugo reminisces about his father (Jude Law), who worked at a museum before his untimely death. One day, his father brings home an automaton, a mechanical man designed to perform complex actions such as walking, with minimal human input, through an intricate clock-style mechanism. When his father is killed in a fire at the museum, Hugo’s uncle (Ray Winstone) takes Hugo to the train station so that he can work as a clock mechanic. Even after the disappearance of his uncle, Hugo continues to work on the clocks in the station, stealing food to feed himself and little cogs and pieces to repair the automaton as his father promised they would do, all the while dodging the meticulous station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).
One day, Hugo is caught trying to steal from a toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley), who in retaliation takes Hugo’s notebook that holds the blueprints for the automaton. In his aggressive attempts to convince the man to return his notebook (which holds some profound significance to the toymaker), Hugo meets the toymaker’s godchild, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), who spends her time buried in literature and longs for a true adventure. Jumping at the chance to have one, she agrees to help Hugo. Hugo shows Isabelle the world of cinema for the first time, something she had never been allowed to do. After they have spent time getting closer, Hugo notices that Isabelle wears a heart-shaped key around her neck–a shape that matches the keyhole on Hugo’s automaton and the very last piece needed for it to operate properly. As they discover the secret of the automaton, they also start to unravel pieces of why Isabelle’s godfather is so depressed and secretive himself.
Chloe Moretz, who has already proven herself as a young actress of remarkable depth and range in films such as Kick-Ass and Let Me In, once again knocks it out of the park with a sweet, innocently curious performance as the adventure-hungry Isabella. Her chemistry with Asa Butterfield is quite good, and they have less of a romance than an affectionate friendship. For his turn, Butterfield brings a great deal of intensity and emotion to the character of Hugo. He’s got a lot to do with his character, and he takes it and runs with it for a really terrific, nuanced performance. As expected, the rest of the seasoned thespians in the film also put on fine performances, from Christopher Lee as a fatherly librarian, Sacha Baron Cohen (delivering a slightly slapstick adversary with hints of light tragedy), and especially Ben Kingsley as a broken man past his prime. Scorsese, as always, proves himself as a director who is enormously capable of getting fantastic performances out of each of his actors.
Hugo marks the second time this year that I must mention the necessity of seeing a film in 3D. I’m usually fairly opposed to the format given that it rarely brings anything significant or worthwhile to the film. Like last month’s Harold & Kumar installment, 3D is used well here, although not to the idiotically goofy degree of that film. Here, Scorsese makes very careful use of the foreground. In scenes that take place inside of the clock, cogs and other clock parts can be seen in in the foreground and corners of the screen, giving a distinct feeling of actually being inside of the clock. He also uses sparks and smoke to float around in the foreground as well, making for one of the most visually stimulating films of the year. The “something popping out of the screen” gimmick is rarely used, but when it is, it is done to excellent effect: one of my favorite shots in the entire film involves the Inspector menacing the children, leaning closer and closer to them. As he does, his face starts to come out of the screen, and the effect is delightful. It’s almost funny that after several other directors and films attempting and failing to use 3D effectively, Scorsese effortlessly trumps all of them with such a fine treatment of the format: so good, in fact, that James Cameron, the pioneer of the new wave of 3D himself, reportedly said that Hugo had the best 3D he had ever seen, better even than his own films. It is a lofty claim, but one that certainly is justifiable.
At its heart, Hugo is a magnificent treat for fans of classic cinema. I originally thought it would be a spoiler, but since it arrives around the halfway point of the film, I don’t have any issue revealing it. Many reviews have already done so and clever viewers will figure it out very quickly, but if you don’t want to know then skip this paragraph: it is revealed that Isabelle’s guardian, known to her as “Papa Georges”, is actually none other than filmmaker Georges Melies, director of some of the earliest silent films such as “A Trip to the Moon”. In a flashback sequence, the production of this film is recreated in loving detail by Scorsese. Here, Melies is a nearly forgotten entity, and feels that his life is wasted. Again, this is a major plot point but not the kicker of the story: the way everything comes together is how the plot truly shines, as well as the fact that this movie is literally about the love of cinema and the passion that so many people have for it.
It goes beyond that as well. Eagle-eyed lovers of old silent films will notice ample references to older films, one of the most obvious being a heavily foreshadowed (but no less thrilling) reference to the the Harold Lloyd classic Safety Last, in which he hangs from the face of a clock. The Inspector is a shining tribute to classic silent cinema police officer villains, which gives the tremendously talented Sacha Baron Cohen a chance at more physical comedy. Even more impressive is how well these more slapstick moments blend with everything else. Scorsese has weaved sincerity, emotion, comedy, and childlike wonder together so expertly it makes other similar films appear downright primitive by comparison.
Though it is being touted as a PG-rated family film, it’s not necessarily something kids would love. Emotionally and thematically heavy, many of the elements, including the back half of the film, will probably be lost on the average child unless they’ve been schooled from a very early age on the dawn of cinema. Even so, the comic relief sprinkled through the film, the terrific visual style, and the beautiful, lively music should hold their attention while the adults get sucked into the history lesson. It does bog down just a bit in the middle as the movie gets a little more plot heavy, but the rest of the film is so well-constructed it’s barely a detraction.
Hugo is a beautiful love letter to art and childhood, done by one of the greatest directors of our time. Scorsese’s self-professed love for cinema shines prominently throughout the film, in the way he lovingly recreates old movies and painstakingly films the train station, which itself seems like a character. His sure-handed and confident direction has rarely been so clearly noticeable as it is now, and it makes Hugo more than just a simple family film, as the trailers might have you believe. It’s a masterpiece by an artist who has a passion that burns brighter than that of nearly anyone else in the industry.