“Hugo” is most definitely a Martin Scorsese film, and one of the better ones at that. But more than anything else, “Hugo” is a movie about the love of movies, crafted by a man who truly loves moviemaking, and meant for those who in turn love the art, spectacle, imagination, and soul-stirring joy of cinema.
Oddly, perhaps, “Hugo” outwardly pushes away intellectual analysis, presenting itself as a simple fantasy. Yet it's an intelligent children's story that refuses to pander, and enraptured many of the young ones at an advance screening I attended. While it can be taken at face value, the film contains layers of meaning waiting to be unwrapped.
While I was watching “Hugo”, I was both fascinated and distracted. Its subject is time, and it refuses to hurry, so that allowed opportunity for my contradictory feelings to war with each other. My own sense of wonder insists that “Hugo” is a must-see in theaters, in 3D if you can, even if its imperfections sometimes undermine its own good intentions.
The cast is mostly British, giving the whole thing a Dickensian feel, with many nods to the slapstick of early silents. Based on Brian Selznick’s novel, The Invention Of “Hugo” Cabret, “Hugo” is a lavish, star-laden fantastical drama starring Asa Butterfield as the young hero of the title, Chloë Grace Moretz as his friend Isabelle, while Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law, Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone and Sir Ben Kingsley round out the adult cast.
The story is nominally about young orphan “Hugo”, who lives in the catacombs of a Paris railway station in the 1930s. Determined to repair a strange mechanical figure found by his father shortly before he died, “Hugo” sets out to discover the automaton’s hidden connection to grumpy, lonely toyshop owner Georges (Kingsley) and his precocious goddaughter, Isabelle (Moretz).
Really, though, “Hugo” is about the early history of movie making, and this is Scorsese’s celebration of period cinema. There are visual references to Harold Lloyd’s perilous dangle from a clock face in Safety Last!, and the Lumière brothers’ The Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat, that students of cinema will adore. Quite what very young audience members will make of “Hugo”’s leisurely pace and nods to silent film is anyone’s guess.
There’s something quite satisfying, though, about the notion of Scorsese luring a mass audience with the promise of a light period fantasy and hitting them instead with some sneaky intellectual nourishment. For those who share the director’s love of cinema, “Hugo”’s a treat.
The acting’s great, with Kingsley fantastic as Papa Georges, whose character arc carries him from cruel and cantankerous to somewhere far more sympathetic. I’m less sure about Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance as a hapless, orphan-hating station inspector, with his moments of slapstick and comic relief often getting in the way of “Hugo”’s more interesting plot developments. Then again, his character does utter the film’s most unexpectedly moving line.
A word or two about “Hugo”’s 3D. There are some who argue that 3D is the symbol of a medium in decline, or at least a cynical attempt to wrest a little more cash from filmgoers’ pockets. “Hugo” is like a rebuke to those critics, and a reminder that cinema is and always has been an optical illusion, a trickster’s routine as intricate as a clock mechanism. “Look,” Scorsese appears to say, “Here’s how great 3D can look when it’s applied correctly."
“Hugo” is a more lively, friendly, vital affair, though it also suffers from a gentle distancing from the harsh realities of the times. It's an optimistic view of life; despite the hard times “Hugo” has experienced, he remains resolute in his determination to remain connected to his late father, and dismisses his evident hunger and dismal living conditions as facts of life, to be endured until he can complete one last great project.
The bittersweet edge of the story is forgotten, however, when “Hugo” pitches forth into the eye-opening early days of the cinema, when imagination had to be handcrafted and the only limitations were life itself. Lovingly recreated, they absolve “Hugo” from its sins, establishing it as a lovely movie in love with movies.
“Hugo” is not "pure cinema.", that's why it's my favourite movie at the moment. It's just as concerned with story and characters as it is with the visual delights that are poured onto the screen. It may, in fact, be too much in love with movies to qualify as great cinema itself, too distracted by the possibilities to remain reined into the central focus of the family at the heart of the story.
In “Hugo”, Scorsese tries to capture that sense of wonder, like lightning in a bottle. And sometimes, he almost manages it.