Hugo (2011) / Drama-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking
Running Time: 126 min.
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Helen McRory, Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg, Ray Winstone, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths
Cameo and small role: Jude Law, Martin Scorsese, Brian Selznick
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: John Logan
Review published March 22, 2015
Brian Selznick's award-winning children's book, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret", gets a lavish, big-screen treatment from Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island, Shine a Light), stepping out of his comfort zone to make a $10 million budgeted, 3D family film. Though he might initially seem an odd choice, once you realize that the movie is a deeply loving homage to the birth of cinema, especially one of its pioneers in Melies, owner of filmdom's first movie studio, you can see why Scorsese would accept such a departure from his usual gritty, adult-oriented fare.
Asa Butterfield (The Wolfman, Ender's Game) stars as the titular hero, a twelve-year-old orphan lad who lives on his own in an ornate train station in the heart of 1930s Paris, where he winds the mammoth clocks around the facilities after his uncle/guardian (Winstone, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) goes missing. With a penchant for mechanics, the boy steals parts from around the station where he can, tinkering around with an incompleted automaton that had been in the care of his father (Law, Repo Men), subsequently leading to a run-in with Georges (Kingsley, Prince of Persia), the owner of a small toy shop on the premises. Hugo manages to stay in and out of the clutches of those out to catch him, eventually befriending several of the station's regulars, including Isabelle (Moretz, Kick-Ass), the young goddaughter of Georges himself.
Scorsese draws out a winning performance from Butterfield, who must show a wide range of emotion without much dialogue, as he's more a spectator to events throughout a good part of the film, highlighting the allure of cinema -- to watch the joys and pains of the lives of others as if we're a fly on the wall. The plot of Hugo relies on certain contrivances and conveniences that would probably sink most films not done with a masterful hand, but Scorsese introduces the element of magic into this world of the train station, and in the world of cinema, such that, when convenient things do occur, it's as if they were always meant to. There's just something more going on underneath the surface that's a bit unreal, but not unbelievable.
Hugo was shot in 3D, and though most people will eventually see the 2D version at home, I can attest, as someone who originally saw it in three dimensions at the time of release, that it is one of the few films that truly benefits from the format. It's a densely constructed film in its production design, meant to give you the feeling of claustrophobia and danger, which always seems to frame young Hugo as he sneaks around behind pipes, gears, and darkened corners of the labyrinthine facilities. Ladders and train tracks are metaphors for frames of film itself, each one a conduit for taking someone from here to there, physically and in spirit. Steam seems to rise up from below, as flakes of snow descend from above, all creating an aura of otherworldliness that shouldn't truthfully be there in the middle of a real-life Paris, and yet it exists in this realm stuck between the reality of the times and the facade of cinema, intentionally so, as Hugo's world meshes seamlessly with his dreams, as well as those dreams put to film by the groundbreakers of its infancy.
If there's a reason that Hugo doesn't exactly rise to become one of Scorsese's great masterworks, it is, quite ironically, a bit too mechanically trapped in its technical design, gorgeous though it may be. There's a lot going on, both in front of us, as well as underneath the film's thematic surface, such that the characters begin to lose their humanity, always seeming to be more like their own cogs in this great machine crafted by Scorsese and the adaptation from John Logan (Sweeney Todd, The Aviator). In its defense, that is also a theme of the film, that of the city being its own machine and each resident an essential part to play in its function, but it does create a distance between us and Hugo when there are so many layers of art and artifice in between. Its ingenious, but it's heart seems to lie more in the automaton's caged chest, or in the inner workings on the projector, than it does in the flesh and blood of Hugo himself, who is, like the parts he takes from one device to put into another, a piece looking for a new home and family to fit into.
Of course, those who love the history of cinema like Scorsese will get much more out of this love letter to film preservation than those who choose to view it just on the surface. Nevertheless, while it may be a bit cold and aloof to entertain the kids that the book squarely targets, Scorsese has made quite a sophisticated film, and one that is infused with the kind of magical treatment that suggests that, though we may age, we will always view movies with the eyes of a child, as our hopes, fears, and dreams unravel before them just as surely as the film itself unravels from one reel to another in telling the story of our lives over the many decades since Melies put a figurative man on the moon.
©2015 Vince Leo