‘Hugo’ is not only an old fashion and heartfelt adventure with enough whimsy and fun for all ages; but also a love letter to cinema, by one of this generation’s masters, and a plea to support film preservation.
Most of the credit for the its success has to be given to Martin Scorsese, who in an attempt to tell the story about the value of art and the dream like and important nature of films, managed to not only capture the magic of moving pictures but in doing so make one just as magical and beautiful as those he admires. The story follows a young boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield). He lives among the gears and machinery within the walls of a grand train station in Paris where he keeps the clocks in working order. He is alone in this task and spends most of his free time trying to fix an automaton that his father found rusting away in a museum, and attempted to fix before he tragically died in a fire. With his father dead he was sent to work in the station with his uncle, a drunk who has gone missing leaving Hugo to live alone, stealing food from the shops to survive and avoid the orphanage. One morning Hugo gets in trouble with the owner, George Melies (Ben Kingsley), of a toy shop located within the station. Hugo had been stealing small trinkets for parts so he could use them in fixing the automaton, which he believes contains a message left to him by his father. The shop’s owner forces Hugo to hand over the stolen trinkets along with a notebook detailing the machine he was trying to fix. Oddly his drawings cause Melies to get emotional and he takes it. In an attempt to get it back, Hugo ends up getting help from the shop owner’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretzs), who is a lover of books and desperate for some kind of adventure. Together they try to unravel the mystery behind her godfather’s reaction to the notebook and the automaton’s message. It is a slow moving, but richly detailed journey that leads to them discovering George Melies’s sad past, which has important ties to the history of film.
Scorsese’s love for cinema is front and center here. Hugo’s loneliness mirrors his own. Scorsese suffered from asthma growing up and wasn’t allowed to play with other children. Like Hugo, Scorsese looked to machines and cameras to occupy his time, turning to art and film to express himself. Hugo’s automaton, a machine like a camera, which played a key part in Melies’s life, only works with a heart shaped key. It is no coincidence that the heart, love and a sense of wonder are the key to creating art and opening one’s imagination. Scorsese, perhaps more than most directors around today, understands the importance of film, especially for younger audiences and in a way this definitely seems like an attempt to get children to appreciate the medium as much as he did years ago.
My favorite aspect of the ‘Hugo’ would be the world created. It is fleshed out fairly well, with many supporting characters given a good deal of attention. The most important being the station inspector played by Sacha Baron Cohen who when he isn’t out trying to catch potential orphans, is trying to woo a beautiful florist, played by Emily Mortimer. It reminded me of ‘Amelie’ in a way, which I guess also had a lot to do with the tone and setting.
The stuff about Melies is incredible and as informative as it is disheartening. The man was one of the early pioneers of films. One of the first to truly understand its capabilities to enchant the audience with dream like settings. Learning the history of his career, how after making over 500 films he was forced to destroy most of them and his old sets when the popularity of his work dropped after the Great War, is tragic. Luckily for us some of his films survived, like “A Trip to the Moon” which is a highly recognizable and frequently referenced short.
The direction, the long shots in particular, are breathtaking. The opening is one of the year’s best and most spectacular scenes. It is arguably Scorsese’s most beautiful film. The fantastical portrayal of Paris is enhanced by 3D that is utilized better than anything I have seen. The use of depth, especially in scenes towards the end in which some of Melies films are recreated in flashbacks is stunning. For once it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. The score is also beautiful and luckily not overwhelming. It is one that is there but not noticeable because it fits the atmosphere of the story so well. Honestly, everything about ‘Hugo’ feels like one complete and perfect work of art, created with a great deal of passion. The only complaint I’ve really heard is that it is too slow at times. Personally I highly disagree with this. Even at its slowest points it is still totally mesmerizing because this isn’t just a love letter to film, or just a historical depiction of the life of one of its most important innovators, it is also a heartfelt story. It earns its emotions and nothing fells forced, and it does this by taking its time, to flesh out its characters and plot.
Lastly, the performances all around are wonderful. Butterfield gives Hugo a great deal of emotion and depth, as well as the level of maturity needed for the character. Ben Kingsley is absolutely magnificent as George Melies. He makes him a clearly sad man, with a long history that troubles him deeply. Chloe Moretz is also great, doing a surprisingly good English accent, and makes the character easily loveable and fun. Even Sacha Baron Cohen, who toned it down, brings his character to life in an almost classically funny way.
Overall to say I loved the film would not do my feelings for it justice. It is so exceptionally crafted, so fun and smart, and most of all it captivated me like few other films have in recent years. It truly is a magical experience, a must see and one of Scorsese’s best.