Posted on Sunday, November 27th, 2011 by Russ Fischer
Hugo is Scorsese’s first family film, and is based on an illustrated kids’ book, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. That explains the setting and the characters, if not Scorsese’s interest in the story. But Hugo is something unusual for a family film: a story with a built-in opportunity to delve into the history of cinema itself, and to make an argument for the preservation of movies as not only the shared memories of an audience, but the collective soul of those who love them.
And so Hugo transports not only us, but Scorsese himself, back to the early days of filmmaking, when magic was made with cheap paint and wood and simple tricks. There is no small irony in the fact that this trip is taken through Scorsese’s most technologically advanced film. Scorsese exuberantly directs the recreation of a Paris that sort of was through gorgeous CGI and some of the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Hugo is a movie born out of love and possessed of genuine soul, and the joy within is just as palpable and infectious as in the early movies Scorsese celebrates.
This is ostensibly the story of the young orphan after whom the movie is named, played with a very adult sense of purpose by Asa Butterfield. Hugo’s father (Jude Law) was a watchmaker, and father and son had been determined to repair an unusual automaton found in a museum. After the passing of his father Hugo lives in the train station where his dissolute uncle (Ray Winstone) keeps the clocks running on time, and with the help of a book-smart girl (Chloe Moretz) the boy attempts to repair the automaton on his own by pilfering parts from a toymaker (Ben Kingsley, adroitly toeing the line between caricature and depth of character) while evading a particularly dedicated station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, adding a lot to what could have been a difficult, thankless character).
That automaton turns out to be a relic of the past in more ways than one. It is designed to write a message, though the nature of the message can’t be seen until the metal man is fully repaired. I’m not trying to suggest that Hugo, the film, is old-fashioned or needs any repairing when I say that it is a lot like that automaton. Using John Logan’s screenplay, Scorsese has created a film that is a complex marvel meant to deliver a simple message: film is beautiful and worth saving.
The message is delivered with hypnotizing showmanship. Collaborating with cinematographer Robert Richardson, Scorsese applies some of his favorite tricks and techniques. The opening, for example, is one long stitched-together ‘shot’ that recalls the famous nightclub walkthrough in Goodfellas. But they augment those techniques with a use of 3D that is calm, clever and focused on depth rather than protuberance. I can’t imagine Hugo having quite the same power to transport without 3D.
As dazzling as the 3D may be, and as effective as the young Hugo’s actions are, the heart of the movie really beats in a handful of sequences in which Scorsese recreates the film studio run by fantastic film pioneer Georges Méliès, director of pioneering sci-fi movie A Trip to the Moon. The historian and the filmmaker inside Scorsese get to join forces to create a moving primer on early film history and preservation. Scorsese makes an argument for the validity of 3D through not only his own original footage, but the conversion of some WWI newsreel clips to the format.
In truth, not every moment of Hugo is a bountifully magnificent as those scenes with Méliès. The movie’s mid-section dallies a bit with character development that seems out of place in the moment, but which does pay off when Scorsese’s thematic intent becomes fully clear. The relationships between side characters and some lingering on the everyday details of this Paris help develop the movie’s big themes about mending broken souls, but I’d selfishly trade twenty minutes of the middle of Hugo, and some of the associated thematic development, for more of the breathless minutes where Scorsese is creating the early career of Méliès.
Those few minutes we do see with the young Méliès — most of which whiz by in one sequence that might be a new and highly addictive drug for film lovers — are deliberately brief. They’re the candy center of Hugo. I’m certain the balance is crucial. Scorsese is clearly energized by the opportunities presented by this story, but he and John Logan keep eyes firmly on the characters. They resist the impulse to nudge them into extravagant action, or to take too many of their own side roads.
(For example, one specific moment would be for many directors a chance to recreate Harold Lloyd’s famous clock stunt. Scorsese is happy to reference it without going all-out to remake the moment. When he does overtly recreate another famous image, he does it in the context of a dream sequence.)
Hugo is very much a Scorsese movie: intricate, intense and suffused with a love of cinema.So much so that it tries to teach a lesson in preserving cinema for future generations. In that respect it isn’t at all a typical family movie. It is quite a bit better than that. Scorsese has done what we often hope directors will do: bent a big budget to create exactly the movie that he’d like to see. Hugo is a kid’s movie for Martin Scorsese, and as a result it is also very likely one for anyone who believes in the power of movies.
/Film score: 8.8 out of 10