A film review by Craig J. Koban December 2, 2011

Rank:  #5

HUGO jjjj

2011, PG, 130 mins.


Hugo Cabret: Asa Butterfield / Isabelle: Chloë Grace Moretz / Lisette: Emily Mortimer / Georges Méliès: Ben Kingsley / Hugo's Father: Jude Law / Station inspector: Sacha Baron Cohen / Uncle Claude: Ray Winstone / Monsieur Labisse: Christopher Lee / Mama Jeanne: Helen McCrory / Rene Tabard: Michael Stuhlbarg / Madame Emilie: Frances de la Tour / Monsieur Frick: Richard Griffiths

Paramount presents a film directed by Martin Scorsese / Screenplay by John Logan, based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick


Huh?  A Martin Scorsese family picture…in 3D!? 

Now, before any of you out there want to incredulously pull your hair our of your heads and scream a pitiful, “Wait, what?!”…think again.  

The director of such gritty, violent, and adult themed dramas like TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS, and THE DEPARTED hardly seems like the proper candidate to helm a children-friendly fairy tale fantasy augmented by multi-dimensional visuals.  Yet, the sheer artistic genius of HUGO - one of 2011’s most transcendent surprises -  is that, yes, it’s completely unlike anything the director has ever made before, but it’s also unlike any family film that I’ve ever seen. 

The irony of HUGO – based on the 2007 Scholastic Press picture novel THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick – is that the once incredible-to-fathom pairing of the children’s film genre with Scorsese himself proves to one of the filmmaker’s most heartfelt works.  At face value, the film is a work of whimsical fantasy with decidedly Dickensian overtones, but its most crucial element is that it’s steeped in a joyous and revered celebration of the cinema and the art of making and preserving classic movies.   

That’s HUGO’S unexpectedly intoxicating hook:  The film may be about a homeless boy eking out an existence as an orphan in a Parisian train station, but it’s more of a bravura distillation of Scorsese’s own lifelong passion for movie history and his steadfast adherence to preserving priceless films of the past for a new generation.  Perhaps more than anything, HUGO shows the greatest living director of the last 40 years at the height of his artistic powers, fluently and confidently utilizing state of the art filmmaking technology to tell a classical fairy tale movie about…well…the movies: this is like his love ballad to the art form and the cinematic pioneers that laid the path for his own filmmaking career. 

The film takes place in Paris of the early 1930’s at a vast and expansive train station.  It hones in – initially at least – with the story of a poor orphan named Hugo Cabret (played in a wonderfully natural performance of wide-eyed inquisitiveness and melancholy by Asa Butterfield) that lives in all of the dark and hidden back rooms and spaces between rooms at the station, spending his days secretly tending to its large scale clocks and stealing food when he can to survive.  He learned the fine and delicate craft of caring for clockwork from his father (Jude Law), who disastrously died in a horrific museum fire, leaving Hugo all alone.  Most of his time is spent tending to the needs of all of the station’s clocks, but during the rest of his free time Hugo pilfers whatever spare parts and gears he can in order to attempt a tricky repair of one of his father’s greatest creations, an automaton (a mechanical man that apparently can write with a pen once operational).  Outside of a much sought-after heart-shaped key required to turn the iron man on, Hugo desperately steals metal, wiring, and other odd parts from a nearby toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley), who one day catches Hugo stealing and confiscates his blueprints to the automaton and subsequently burns them, much to Hugo’s tearful dismay. 

Still convinced that the automaton contains a message from his dead father, Hugo still tries to acquire the necessary components to make it work, and he gets some assistance from the shopkeeper's own goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz, a cauldron of feel-good energy and vitality).  While on their search, Hugo finds himself introducing Isabelle to the movies, which her godfather has forbade her to watch during her young life.  This then leads them to a library, during which time they pour over books on early filmmaking pioneers.  They find one particular text on the legendary trendsetter George Melies, who inspired Hugo’s father.  When Isabelle and Hugo make the startling discovery that her godfather is in fact George Melies and that Hugo’s automaton has personal ties to him, the remainder of the film deals with Hugo trying to get the reclusive Melies to open up to his past, just as long as he’s not captured by the train station’s inspector (played with a jolly and despicable glee by Sacha Baron Cohen).   



The film may be Hugo’s personal journey of discovery, but it almost ostensibly becomes about Melies’ sad story about his fall from grace.  He was, of course, a real director, and the film is wondrous for how it appropriates aspects of his actual life story and sprinkles them into a fantastical fictional narrative.  Scorsese – with a pitch perfect eye for recreating his past – flashes back to Melies’ career as a magician when he literally decided to become a filmmaker after he saw the legendary early film ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT, the 1897 short that was so realistic to the then virginal audience that it caused them to duck in terror as the film’s train careened towards the screen.   

Melies' career became the stuff of folklore: He would build the very first film studio, be one of the first to fully incorporate vast and imaginatively designed sets and costumes into the movies, and used unheard of special effects and meticulous hand tinting of the individual film frames to create just the right intended escapist effect, which perhaps is most personified in his 1902 work A TRIP TO THE MOON.  The central tragedy, though, of this man – which figures heavily into HUGO’s story – is that his greatness and watershed techniques never materialized to the larger viewing public.  He made 530 films between 1896 and 1914, but when facing bankruptcy he was forced to sell the film stock that were – dear Lord! – melted into material made for high heel shoes.  Only one print of A TRIP TO THE MOON exists, as do only a handful of his other works, which left the once flourishing director miserable for most of his life.   

Central to HUGO is that Scorsese explores the unparalleled innovations and creative impulses of this man during his formative years before he hit rock bottom, but he also manages to expound on the larger importance of preserving past films for future consumption and admiration, which allows for HUGO to become a very unanticipated lesson in film conservation.  Again, one of the limitlessly compelling ironies of the film is that Scorsese makes use of modern movie making artifice (and 3D) to journey into the past to celebrate and recreate Melies’ past film making endeavors.  Thankfully, Scorsese is wise and focused enough as a filmmaker himself to know just how to use 3D to the proper effect here.  As opposed to using it as an eye-straining gimmick, he incorporates it into the film to vastly expand its visual richness and sense of texture: HUGO is the single best example of multi-dimensional filmmaking since James Cameron’s AVATAR.   

Aside from its story and themes, HUGO is one of the most exquisitely beautiful and ravishing of all of Scorsese’s films.  His version of Paris and its train station (recreated on England sound stages and using virtuoso CGI and model effects) is breathlessly inventive.  Scorsese – with the help of his cinematographer, Robert Richardson – evokes a deeply romanticized and dreamlike portrait of the Parisian locales and cityscape.  The film opens with an extraordinary establishing shot that begins above the hustle and bustle of the brightly illuminated city and the swoops through it and headlong into the train station and culminates on a solitary shot of Hugo’s eyes peering through a large clock face.  The design of the train station itself is almost hallucinogenic for its picturesque splendor: we not only are given splendid and awe inspiring shots of the ravishing station in all of its operational glory, but we also get to see the darker and drearier portrayals of the halls, corridors, and back rooms that make up Hugo’s clandestine existence.  Like all great works of film fantasy, HUGO contains a world that feels familiar, but looks otherworldly and allows for viewers to be effortlessly transported into its storybook trappings.  HUGO's environment, rather appropriately, does not look realistic, per se; the film is a transformative visceral experience for viewers to luxuriously take in and actively experience. 

Yet, make no mistake about it: this may not look like a film that has Scorsese’s normative esoteric fingerprints all over it, but the soul of the film and its themes pulses with his inner passions.  This is a rare family fantasy that takes incalculable risks: it begins by telling the sorrowful story of one lonely and depressed orphan on his journey of discovery and then makes an about-face and transforms into a wholly different narrative of a once forgotten filmmaking icon that, through the aid of the orphan, comes to grips with his past and re-embraces it to heal his pain in the present.  Kingsley may come off as a larger-than-life cartoonish creation as Melies in the early stages of the film, but as the film progresses and becomes largely cemented in the his truly heartbreaking past, Kinglsey vigilantly modulates his performance to elicit this man’s dreadful fall from grace and his haunting inability to cope in the present.   

HUGO is a family entertainment that is true feast for the eyes and engages audiences on a primal visual level.  Yet, it also transfixes viewers in a touching and sentimental narrative that, in turn, deals with its director’s own pet causes.  How many films like it manage to be such a delightful coming-of-age fable while championing the real life birth of the movies?  Children will assuredly be taken in with the visual majesty of the whole production, but adults will perhaps come out with a newfound appreciation for movie-making lore and its tireless innovators that have largely gone unsung.  Because of the latter sentiment, HUGO is, in many ways, Scorsese’s most profoundly personal film of his career.  

  H O M E