Scorsese’s ode to the medium he loves so dearly will still be as poignant, rich and vital so long as film itself remains so.
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.
In short: Hugo is another Martin Scorsese masterpiece.
The film has been sold as a “family-friendly adventure” full of whimsy and spectacle, and for the first act of Hugo’s two-hour runtime, this is absolutely true. The story opens on 1930s Paris, where we meet young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), the orphaned son of a clock maker, living in the walls of a train station where he fixes and maintains the many clocks that need attendance. Hugo’s father perished in a fire, leaving behind the mystery of a strange automaton that Hugo obsessively tries to fix, as was his father’s wish. The boy’s unfaltering quest brings him into contact with many colorful characters around the station, including the orphan-hunting inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a curmudgeonly old toy maker (Ben Kingsley), and eventually the toy maker’s bookworm goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz). However, the quest to fix the automaton is only the first piece in a much larger mystery – one that involves a long-lost filmmaker, and a convergence of lives and destinies that will bring together all those who encounter young Hugo Cabret.
As stated, Hugo may at first seem like it is simply ‘Martin Scorsese making a 3D kids movie,’ but once the automaton is completed and the larger mystery revealed, it quickly becomes apparent what drew Scorsese to this film (based on the 2007 historical fiction book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick). But Hugo is not a kid’s film. Hugo is not even really a film for mainstream audiences. Hugo is, in large part, a celebration of the early era of cinema, centered around real-life pioneer filmmaker, Georges Méliés. It is this unabashed joy and celebration of movie magic that elevates Hugo as one of Scorsese’s most lovingly-crafted and imaginative films. It is also what will make Hugo a bit too heady and artistic for those hoping for a more mainstream adventure.
Screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, The Last Samurai) skillfully adapts Selznick’s novel into a film that works on a multitude of levels, offering one of the richest, most rewarding cinematic experiences I’ve had in a while. There is something for everyone to grasp onto and be moved by in this film – be it the idea of adventure and destiny (kids); the exploration of that in life which “breaks” us, and in turn, “fixes” us again (adults); or simply the meditation on what makes movies truly wondrous and transcendent (cinephilles). It’s all there in the story of Hugo’s journey – a journey that the script steers the viewer through with careful control and near perfect synergy of its respective parts.
The genius of what Scorsese has done, from a directing standpoint, is to craft a love letter to cinema’s past in the form of cinema’s present (and arguably its future): digital 3D. Hugo is the most accomplished and worthwhile 3D film I have seen – and yes, that includes James Cameron’s Avatar, the film which resurrected the 3D trend. Where Cameron used 3D as a highly effective and captivating tool of spectacle, Scorsese is the one who as officially elevated the technique to the level of high art.
From the onset, it is clear (in the choices of scene construction, set pieces, and photography) that Hugo is the work of a master filmmaker embracing a modern trend in filmmaking. Instead of using 3D as a gimmick, or even an augmentation of his already considerable skills, Scorsese boldly explores the new and unique filming possibilities offered by the medium. At times this movie is simply beautiful to behold (early scenes in the train station come to mind), while at other times, the filming choices Scorsese makes are stimulating and provocative in their originality and creativity (later scenes set during the early days of silent filmmaking are, ironically, some of the best modern 3D scenes ever shot).
In short: with Hugo, Scorsese single-handedly makes a case for why 3D is worthy of living beyond the lifespan of a trend, as well as setting a new bar for what filmmakers should endeavor to accomplish with the format.
Of course, no movie would hold itself upright without a cast of talented performers to bring it to life. Scorsese’s name clearly commands a high level of respect in the industry, as even the smallest roles in Hugo are populated by some accomplished acting talent. There are appearances by Jude Law, Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Emily Mortimer and Michael Stuhlbarg – all of whom are bit players in this film, but manage to create vivid and lively characters, no matter how small their role. Every person we meet is an important cog in the narrative machine.
The central adult characters are also wonderfully realized, with Helen McCrory (Harry Potter) delivering great understated pain and longing as the toy maker’s loving wife; Ben Kingsley once again proving why he is one of the best actors there is, putting on a full display of emotion and complexity as the toy maker with a mysterious past; and even Sacha Baron Cohen showing that his comedic identities as Borat or Bruno are but exaggerated expressions of his true acting talents. Cohen’s arc as the station inspector is one of the more subtle (yet moving) performances – one that starts off seemingly one-note (comedic relief), but comes to a resounding finish that is in perfect fit with the many layered themes of the story.
As for the young leads: Chloe Moretz is already an established star, having broken in stardom via films like (500) Days of Summer, Kick-Ass, and her leading role as a savage vampire in Let Me In. As the precocious Isabelle, she is a perfect foil for Hugo – and though she is more reserved than usual in this film, the scenes of her and Butterfield going through the slightly awkward motions of boy/girl politics makes for some of the movie’s most endearing moments. Like Hugo, Isabelle is also an orphan, and the movie lightly touches on some serious subjects like death and loss, which Moretz is deftly able to deliver in a mature-but-not-too-heavy manner.
It seems safe to say that Asa Butterfield (Son of Rambow) has achieved a breakout success playing the titular Hugo. The opening of this film is an ode to the old silent movies it celebrates, and involves Butterfield onscreen for a good ten minutes without uttering a single word. Even without the crutch of dialogue to lean on, Butterfield manages to instantly establish Hugo’s presence and character, through skilled expressiveness and body language that most adult actors might struggle with. Later on, when he’s required to carry scenes of powerful emotionality, Butterfield again rises to the task set before him, making some of the story’s heavier themes and moments truly great and moving. Definitely a young star in the making.
Aside from its gorgeous 3D imagery, Hugo is not a film that bends to the tastes and trends of the times. The film sets its own pace and takes its sweet time building its story arc, subplots, character developments and themes – unafraid of catering to shallow desires for speedy payoff or empty spectacle. While that slower pace, and the sudden change of focus in the second act, may disappoint those who have been lured by the film’s ‘3D kids movie’ marketing (or even bore kids too young to understand the headier themes), there is no doubt that this is a film whose achievements will last well beyond the now. Indeed, Scorsese’s ode to the medium he loves so dearly will still be as poignant, rich and vital so long as film itself remains so.
Heck, by the time this movie hits home video, I may have to go out and buy a 3D TV, just to be able to recapture the full experience of seeing it. One of the year’s best films, in my opinion.
Hugo is now playing in theaters everywhere. Check out the trailer for the film, and rate it for yourself in our poll below: