The genius of Martin Scorcese’s Hugo is not just that it employs the latest in filmmaking technology, but that it employs them in a story about how filmmaking itself came to be. This is a subject near and dear to Scorcese, who, apart from directing and producing, is renowned for his work as a film historian (he’s the co-founder of The Film Foundation and the World Cinema Foundation, both nonprofit organizations dedicated to the preservation of film). He doesn’t present history so much as immerse us in it, and not in a way that’s distant or clinical but rather in a way that’s warm and inviting. He beckons us with the art of illusion, gets us interested in the mechanics, and allows us to study them up close. In that process of revelation, never once does the magic elude us.
Hugo, adapted from Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is an absolute triumph, not just of plot, but of casting, performance, character development, art direction, set design, special effects, and theme as well. It’s also one of the best looking 3D films I’ve ever seen, and if you’ve read my reviews, you know how I feel about 3D in general. Rather than assault our field of vision with crude pop out gags, Scorcese allows the process to envelope us like a blanket, making us at one with the world he has created. We’re not watching the story unfold; we’re actually a part of it. There are times when I wanted to reach out and try to touch the images, for they were so well integrated into the shots that they achieved an uncanny tactile quality. For the first time ever, I’m recommending you spend the extra money for a 3D movie, especially if your local theater uses digital projectors that allow for bright, clear pictures.
Taking place in Paris sometime in the early 1930s, it tells the story of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphaned boy who lives within the walls of a train station. As the son of a watchmaker (Jude Law in a flashback sequence), he has an affinity for clockwork and mechanical creations, which is why he keeps himself busy by winding all the station’s clocks. His secret lair is a world of iron, gears, pendulums, springs, and steam. He observes the everyday hustle and bustle through various openings, usually clock faces. He sees Monsieur Frick, the newspaper vendor (Richard Griffiths), trying to woo the café owner, Madame Emile (Francis de la Tour), while simultaneously trying to avoid her irritable dog. He sees a flower girl named Lisette (Emily Mortimer), who cheerfully sets up shop every morning. He desperately tries to avoid the mean, crippled station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who, along with his Rottweiler, rounds up unattended children and has them shipped off to the orphanage.
Before he died in a fire, Hugo’s father was trying to repair a metal automaton, which he found rusting away in a museum. Hugo, determined to finish the work his father started, runs afoul of a bitter, reserved man known as Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), whose assortment of windup figures has the gears Hugo needs. Georges, who knows Hugo has been stealing from him, is shocked when he discovers a notebook Hugo’s father sketched in. He then takes it and refuses to return it. He even threatens to burn it. Hugo must get it back. Here enters Georges’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who quickly becomes Hugo’s friend. Well read and adventurous, Isabelle wears a heart-shaped key around her neck – the same key that fits a special lock on Hugo’s automaton. Why does she have it? And what will happen once the automaton has been wound up?
Alas, I cannot describe the rest of the film without becoming annoyingly vague. What a shame that I’m unable to reveal how all this connects to the art of filmmaking. All I can say is, Scorcese does a masterful job of depicting what it must have been like in those early days of movies, in which it was evident that not even the limits of technology could put a damper on the imagination. We see boundless creativity in gaudy costumes, plywood sets, and celluloid that has been hand tinted frame by frame. We study first generation cameras and projectors and marvel at their hand-operated mechanisms. Best of all, we see audiences staring in awe as pictures, projected on a white screen, actually move.
Every character is so engaging and richly developed that I couldn’t possibly praise them all. This would not have been possible were it not for the spot-on casting. As Hugo, Butterfield is sympathetic but not manipulative – a Dickensian character capable of real emotions. Moretz is just plain charming as plucky young Isabelle, and Kingsley shows great range as Georges. The biggest surprise is Cohen as the station inspector, who we expect will be little more than a traditional cross between a frightening menace and comedy relief. We would be wrong; as he nervously makes passes at Lisette, we begin to see a real person, a man who has yet to process his misfortunes in life in a healthy, constructive way. As a historical fable, and as a celebration of the cinematic arts, Hugo is a treasure.
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