Hugo is a film about movies, about their beginnings at the turn of the century, about their magic, about the artistic obsession of the people who make them– and us, the people in the audience, filmgoers who love movies.
For director, Martin Scorsese, it’s also a take on his personal story. He was a sickly child in New York who looked out a window to life happening in the world below him and then grew up to achieve glory as a weaver of cinematic tales. In time he used his influence to subsidize film preservation efforts, and to bring recognition to film pioneers who had been forgotten. In his case, it was English director Michael Powell, who directed such gems as The Red Shoes, and The 49th Parallel in the 1940s.
Before Hugo was released, a big question in the film industry was–would Hugo catapult Scorsese into the pantheon of other directors who made big budget, family oriented extravaganzas, such as his contemporaries Steven Spielberg and James Cameron? The answer is “yes” and “no.” Hugo has all the emotional pull of a Spielberg film (i.e. E.T.), but is too elegant to share its predictable timing and is way too nuanced to be summed up in one tag line. Hugo is comparable to Cameron’s Avatar in its use 3-D and CGI effects, but these technical thrills are seamless to its story and never done for just poke-in-the-eye effect. In fact, for me, Hugo is the only film that rivals Avatar’s special effects, and I had to see that movie six times before I felt I had really seen it all.
Hugo‘s story compels a director wizard to pull out all the cinematic tricks he has up his sleeve. In fact, Hugo is about magic–precisely, it’s about the people who make magic happen. Hugo, based on the marvelous illustrated book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, to which the film is respectfully faithful, has a cast of characters unlike any film you’ve ever seen: a young orphan hero obsessed with fixing a strange machine called an automaton that his late father rescued from a museum; a girl who has the heart, literally, that is the key to this machine; an embittered old film genius and his supportive wife; a kindly old bookseller who knows intuitively when a child needs a book that will change his life; a train station inspector who hasn’t recovered from his war wounds; a flower seller who is too serious to flirt; a middle aged couple whose yapping dogs bring them together; and lastly an astonished film historian who brings about a very happy ending.
The story is in Paris in the 1930s. The City of Lights sparkles like no other place on earth, but times are tough during the Great Depression, and France still suffers from the terrible loss of life in World War I. In a series of breathtaking moves, the camera starts in the clouds high over the city, to see its magnificent lay-out and the icon of the Eiffel Tower in the distance and then dives into the cavernous train station bustling with belching trains and hurrying crowds, rimmed with dozens of shops and cafes. Then it zooms into the hidden belly of the station that houses the complicated works of the station’s great clocks.
The inhabitant of this mind-boggling labyrinth is Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a boy whose father (Jude Law) died in a museum fire and whose uncle, the station’s clock master, finally drank too much and drowned in the Seine. On his own, with no adult any the wiser, Hugo has taken over the task of keeping the station’s clocks in perfect repair–for the trains, and all their arrivals and departures, and the thousands of people every day who depend on the trains’ punctuality, turn to the clocks to know how to order their day.
We first meet Hugo in a breathtaking trip: he climbs up several stories of ladders, whirls up a spiral staircase, slides down a chute, scrambles along precarious walkways, and scrambles in and out of enormous clicking clock gears. No one knows he’s here and he peers out through a clock face to the world below. His target is the stall of the toy shop, run by an old curmudgeon named George Melies (Ben Kingsley).
Hugo has been stealing spare parts from the shop to repair an automaton his father rescued from the museum. The automaton, a human-shaped character, of brass and other shiny metal, sits at a table, ready to write words on a piece of paper. After months of intense labor, all that is missing is a heart-shaped key to fit into the slot in the automaton’s chest. Hugo is convinced that the automaton will deliver him a message from his dead father. So his repair of the automaton is not just the obsession of a boy genius, but the aching of a lonely son desperate to connect with his father.
One day the Melies catches Hugo trying to steal a toy mouse for its parts. Cruelly, he takes Hugo’s notebook, the one his father filled with illustrations of the automaton. Worse, the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), distracted from his pursuit of the charming flower seller (Emily Mortimer), threatens to catch Hugo and deport him to the city’s dread orphanage.
Rescuing Hugo from this horrible fate is Melies’ goddaughter, Isabella (Chloe Grace Moretz). She is one of those bookish children who is fascinated with new words, discovering them with glee and letting the sounds of them roll off her lips like sacred honey. Words like “clandestine,” “spectacular,” and “splendid.” Words that seem to punctuate her growing friendship with Hugo and the adventures they take on.
Hugo loves films because his father always took him to the cinema. He sneaks into a theatre with Isabella to catch Frank Lloyd’s famous 1923 film, Safety Last, in which Lloyd is hanging for dear life on the edge of a skyscraper and the hands of a clock. Isabella has never seen a movie because her godfather, for reasons he will not explain, won’t allow her to go the movies.
Why won’t her godfather allow her to go to the movies? And why does Isabella wear a key in the shape of a heart–just the key that Hugo needs to fix his automaton? Why does the automaton not write words–but makes a drawing of a rocket flying into the face of a man in the moon? And why is that drawing signed by George Melies, Isabella’s godfather?
While solving all these mysteries, the story takes us back into the fascinating early days of cinema, when George Melies, who it turns out, was a brilliant film pioneer, made over 500 films, silent of course, but many of them in color, for the individual frames were hand-painted. Melies, falling on hard times, had to destroy all his films and grew bitter at the forced end of his creative life. That doesn’t excuse his cruelty to Hugo, but it does explain it.
Like all good stories about children who are on a hero’s journey, Hugo also finds good adults who help him–there is the kindly bookseller (Christopher Lee) who guides the children to the film library, where they find the film historian who is shocked to see the drawing made b y the automaton. There is also Mrs. Melies (Helen McCrory), the film’s only adult female in a leading role, who has a pang of nostalgia that turns out to help everyone.
In and out of the train station, running from the Station Inspector and his overeager Doberman pinscher, Hugo goes from one harrowing challenge to another, including a terrifying episode of hanging on the huge hands of a clock on the side of the train tower–just like Harold Lloyd did. Throughout the movie, references to other films are made, obvious and less obvious (so film nuts can have a ball, but the average person is merely wildly entertained) and the end result is a breathless intoxication with film history.
It’s the most fun I’ve had in a movie in years.
Although Hugo is a family-friendly film, it’s too complicated for very young children. Even for a few adults, at 127 minutes, it might be too long–so be forewarned. You might want to check out the film’s excellent website: www.hugomovie.com, to whet your appetite for the film’s incredible beauty, with its spectacular setting, costumes, set design and cinematography.
After I saw Hugo, and aware that its length might reduce the number people coming to see it–I asked myself–is there any scene that I would have removed to make the film shorter? I weighed this scene and that, this subplot and that one, this secret with that one. My conclusion? Although Hugo was long–it wasn’t too long. It was long and and it was perfect. “Masterpiece” is not a word that Isabella chose for her word collection, but she could very well have plucked it from her inspiration to describe the film Martin Scorsese made.